“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is the story of author and literary forger Lee Israel, from director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”). The film is as gripping and quirky as Heller’s previous outing. A kind of Patricia Highsmith story as if illustrated by Robert Crumb, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is both entertaining and human.
Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is the biographer of Estee Lauder, but now down on her luck. She is argumentative, vulgar, coarse and depressed. Fired from her menial job due to fighting, she is unable to find fulfilling work and her cat is deathly sick.
Israel needs money.
One day, she happens to stare at a letter she acquired from Katherine Hepburn and decides to add to it, forging a postscript. Israel sells it to a bookstore and has her cash for the vet.
Realizing her talent for forgery, she writes more. At a bar, Israel meets a theatrical character Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a man with a penchant for hijinks, and the two form an alliance. Composing some 400 notes by Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker among others, Israel receives thousands of dollars from the sales.
McCarthy is wonderful; this is by far her most potent, lively and authentic work. Her silly slapstick persona is nearly absent. Instead we see a very solid character, who is refreshingly human. The material is new for the actor and McCarthy to her great credit takes chances and does not hold back. Her comic self disappears; instead of her trademark loudness, she is grim, standoffish, silently gleeful and riddled with guilt from a failed relationship with her girlfriend. Her face begins to tell a story. No longer is she the comedienne who falls down and yells, at war with her body. Seeing McCarthy is an adventure.
Grant is vivid too as a semi-pickled bon vivant with a spark in his eye, contrasting McCarthy’s grim aura.
“Saturday Night Live” fans will cheer seeing Jane Curtin in the role of an exasperated literary agent.
Because of the seedy setting and grouchy quirks, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has the offbeat edges of “Barfly” and “Bad Santa,” but unlike those striking yet outrageous tales, you will find yourself considerably more sensitive to Lee Israel as a person who clearly had a gift for mimicking an author’s voice, even though she most definitely committed a crime.
This is the most delicate work that McCarthy has ever done. Her Oscar-nominated portrait of this gifted loner, like Johnny Depp’s “Edward Scissorhands,” is primarily seen through the face and reaches very close to poetry.
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