Melissa McCarthy is the aching heart of the curmudgeonly, revelatory Can You Ever Forgive Me?
There’s perhaps nothing more lonely than being a writer. Don’t be mistaken, to be a writer is to touch something greater than ourselves, to enter into a momentary embrace with an endless history of artists and pioneers and attempt to craft something worthy of those who came before us. It’s a deeply human, deeply vital practice. But when we write, we must enter the confines our of own minds with only ourselves to guide us. For many, such an act can be freeing. For others, it can also be terrifying. When you do something like this for a living, years of highs and lows conjured out of something purely created by your own mind can leave the most vulnerable of us alienated, jaded, and forgetful of why we even got into writing professionally in the first place. A state of mind like this doesn’t just lead to writers block. It can leave feeling lonelier than we’ve ever felt.
Perhaps no film captures the crippling nature of this feeling better than Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marille Heller’s (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) adaptation of the memoir of the same name by Lee Israel, a once successful biographer whose fall from grace was punctuated by a fraud scheme in which she forged over 400 letters pretending to be famous literary icons, then sold the fake letters to collectors. Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids) plays the sour, misanthropic Israel, who is aided in her crimes by her drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, Withnail & I), a charming miscreant whose penchant for debauchery is a strange but fitting foil to her more caustic personality.
Israel is about as compelling as an unlikable character can get, a Grinch you can love even if her heart never really grows three sizes. From the start of the film, she’s already at her lowest point: she’s drinking heavily, behind on rent, plagued by writers block, and her beloved cat is sick. Even if she could write, her work is considered old-hat and decidedly “unsexy”, negating more reader-friendly content for biographies of lesser known people such as Fanny Brice, the vaudeville comedian that barely anyone in the film has even heard of. Worst of all, despite her claims that she’s better off with cats than people, she’s haunted by her loneliness. Despite all of this, she still has the soul of a writer: quick-witted, appreciative of history, and deeply protective of the integrity of the written word.
It’s this soul that drives Israel to crime, but not for reasons you would expect. Her interaction with the world of literary collecting starts out innocently enough; desperate for cash, she sadly departs with a cherished letter from Katherine Hepburn. Soon after, she discovers a Brice letter hidden in a library book and attempts to sell it, only to this time be told she’d get more money if the letter was more interesting in its content. She stuffs the letter into a typewriter, adds a persnickety post script and is rewarded with a fat wad of a cash. Now she’s addicted. But it’s less about the money, and more about the writing. For the first time in ages, Israel feels like she’s producing her best work. The forgeries give her a chance to showcase her voice in a way that until this point felt lost to her.
What helps drive the emotion of all this home is the fact that McCarthy is perfect for this role, showing off her dramatic chops but never failing to bring out the dark humor behind it. Every insult and quip feels more human, more like a cry for help, because she has the range to pull off the aching heart behind this outsider. The real Israel defined herself by her curmudgeon-like humor; to put this on film is risky because it has a high probability of being a one-note, gimmicky performance. McCarthy, however, isn’t afraid to go all in, bringing to life the complexity behind the lonely wistfulness of this difficult personality. It’s a career performance, the kind that people look back on as a turning point in an actor’s filmography where they were finally allowed to show off the depths of what they are capable of.
As if McCarthy wasn’t good enough, she has a splendid scene partner in Grant, whose turn as Hock is so charming it should be illegal. Grant has more fun with the role than probably any performer has any right to, turning what could be another caricature into something unforgettable. He’s the perfect foil to McCarthy’s performance, always matching her in wit whilst bringing a similar lonely sadness to the character. Another positive note its that both characters are gay but not defined by their identities, and their friendship is one of the most touching platonic relationships between queer characters ever put to the screen. It’s one of those genuine pairings between actors that feels like magic, something you only capture by accident every once in a blue moon.
The performances are stellar, but the film is really put over the edge by the artful work from Heller and screenwriters Nicole Holofcner (The Land of Steady Habits) and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q). They turn what could otherwise be a straightforward biography about an off-kilter petty crime spree and turn into a socially conscious, deeply emphatic story of the relationship between writers and their work. Aided by McCarthy, they capture all the joy and sorrow of being a writer, that lonely profession whose fruits are enjoyed best by those who grow them. Heller is a confident, compassionate director who never lets her camera get in the way of the truth; instead, she lets it loom, motionless, as Israel admits to a judge that she has no regrets, only the knowledge that she loved writing letters because it freed her from the fear of facing criticism for her own work. There’s no schmaltzy monologues here. Just honesty.
All said and done, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of the most surprising films of the year, an emotionally intelligent, often funny portrait of a strange woman who committed an even stranger crime. There’s something to be said about whether or not the real Israel is deserving of the attention, but the film’s success in making her a compelling character suggests it’s worth the criticism the film will probably receive on that end. Like Israel herself, this film is a slow, fussy collection of world weary musings. But the performances keep you around just long for its tragically heartfelt, deeply empathetic heart to shine through.