Can You Ever Forgive Me review: Melissa McCarthy enters the Oscar race with this true-life tale from the acclaimed director of The Diary of a Teenage Girl.  

Melissa McCarthy in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

McCarthy has more than established herself as one of America’s favourite funny people. She, in fact, already brushed with Awards season when she was nominated for her breakout role in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids. Now, with Can You Ever Forgive MeMcCarthy is going down more dramatic routes with the type of film the Academy often likes, and a performance which should very much grab their attention.

McCarthy portrays Lee Israel, a New York Times Bestselling biographer. Those days, however, are far behind her. The film picks up with Lee in 1991, where we find her struggling to pitch new book ideas, very much broke, bitter and usually with a scotch in hand. With the situation getting desperate, Lee finds a means of making money through not entirely legal means; by forging and selling letters written by famous deceased actors, writers and playwrights. Aided by her friend Jack (Richard E. Grant), it is not long until Lee’s actions grab the attention of the FBI.

Lee Israel’s story is not one I was particularly aware of, which always makes these kinds of biopics all the more interesting as they aim to engage, entertain and educate. What Heller provides is a warts and all look at Lee, really showing her state of desperation that led her to this admittedly creative act of forgery. It allows us to be able to justify her actions in our own minds, as well as get a really intimate sense of just what Lee may have been like.

Lee is someone who has burned most of the bridges her earlier success in life built for her, and the only strong relationship she has in her life is with her old cat Jersey. She’s abrasive, dry-witted and quick to confrontation. In the hands of another actor, she may come across as too negative and too self-destructive to be worthy of our sympathy. But, thanks to McCarthy’s touching and often very funny performance, Lee’s story becomes all the more palatable and engaging. Whether it’s pretending to be Nora Ephron on the phone, swigging back a scotch with Jack or getting more anxious the deeper her scheme goes, McCarthy’s utterly endearing performance sells every moment and keeps us on her side throughout.

She has wonderful support in the form of Richard E. Grant. He brings that same level of mischievous charm that he displayed so brightly in Withnail and I, with Jack’s swagger covering up a sense of desperation, a need to be a friend and to feel needed, something which he just about manages to form with Lee. Grant and McCarthy have magic chemistry on screen, with the scenes of them together in the earlier stages of their friendship standing out as the strongest moments in the film.

Marielle Heller made a very impressive name for herself with the edgy coming-of-age drama Diary of a Teenage Girl. While this isn’t quite as sharp or as visually inventive as that film, Heller more than demonstrates that her debut was no fluke, proving once again to be fantastic with actors. She also paints an affectionate portrait of the city of New York, one which doesn’t hide from its ugliness but shows a clear love the Big Apple in its framings over the city across the seasons.

It would not be a surprise to see McCarthy (or Grant) amongst many acting gongs across the upcoming awards season. Any nomination is more than valid, as McCarthy demonstrates shades of dramatic chops that we haven’t yet seen from her, all the while further demonstrating that she can be incredibly funny. The role of Lee Israel is an ideal fit for her talents in a story that expresses the struggle one can have when it comes to figuring just what it is one is meant to do on this Earth, and what we may do to find that out. A brilliant story, fabulously told.

Can You Ever Forgive Me review by Andrew Gaudion, October 2018.

Can You Ever Forgive Me was reviewed at the 2018 BFI London Film Festival.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?