In a much-needed move away from her usual comedic roles, Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters) stars as Jewish American author Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s deeply moving and decidedly melancholic new feature Can You Ever Forgive Me? The film, which has earned both McCarthy and co-star Richard E.Grant nominations at this year’s Academy Awards, is based on Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name and tells the story of how she found herself at the centre of one of the biggest literary scandals of the 1990s.
The year is 1991, and following the critical and commercial failure of her biography of iconic businesswoman Estée Lauder, Israel is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Frozen out by her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) for her refusal to play the “fame game”, and fired from her job at a newspaper due to her drunken antics and general misanthropic demeanour, the author soon finds a new line of work when she stumbles into the highly lucrative market of celebrity memorabilia.
Inventing gently acerbic quotes and bons mots in letters that she later attributes to dead celebrities from Noel Coward to variety star Fanny Brice, Lee finds an unlikely kindred spirit in the mysterious Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant at his awe-inspiring best), a fellow hard-drinking New York dweller whom she entrusts with selling the fake material.
Heller (Transparent, The Diary of a Teenage Girl) offers a thoroughly engaging and deftly executed story about two deeply flawed individuals who, against all odds, form a beautiful friendship.
With a screenplay that is peppered with tremendously sharp one-liners and gently pointed insults, the film does a great job in highlighting Israel’s character and goes a long way in rehabilitating her without ever feeling the need to turn her into a victim.
Offering Israel as a deeply sympathetic anti-hero, McCarthy gives one of the finest performances of her career as she highlights the vulnerability of a character to whom one can’t help but warm.
For his part, Richard E. Grant oozes charm as the amiable drifter who saw more in his friend than she herself was able to show to the rest of the world.
British actress Dolly Wells brings some much-needed sanity to the proceedings as Anna, a bookshop owner for whom Lee develops a soft spot.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the buddy comedy nobody knew they wanted. It is charming, understated and in parts utterly heartbreaking and— just like Israel herself — it offers no excuses.