Director: Marielle Heller
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant
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“I was supposed to be something more than this,” reflects Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. A heavy-driving, but not heavy-selling author, Israel finds herself strugging to make ends meet – nobody, she realises, is interested in a biography of Fanny Brice, and certainly isn’t interested in paying an advance for it. But when she discovers that someone will pay for a letter by Katharine Hepburn she owns, she stumbles across another form of income: forging letters by famous people and hawking them on the collector circuit.
Soon enough, she’s making a pretty (illegal) penny, imitating everyone from Brice to Noel Coward. The bookstores and the dealers, though, start to catch on, so Israel recruits an acquaintance she meets in the local pub: Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). An equally heavy drinker, they become fast friends, eager conspirators and – of course – regular boozing buddies.
Simply watching the duo in deceitfu action is a joy, thanks to the pair’s winning performances. Richard E. Grant walks away with the entire show as the rambuctious Jack, the kind of man whose smile precedes him when he enters a room. He’s a loyal, generous friend, happy to play the sidekick to Israel’s unlikely forger if it keeps him in pocket, her happy and the two of them in each other’s company.
McCarthy, crucially, lets him walk away with it. She delivers a wonderfully generous turn that’s understated to a fault, digging deep into Lee’s caustic, unsympathetic traits without making her completely loathsome – quietly charismatic, endearingly pathetic, amusingly sarcastic and heartbreakingly tragic, it’s the best performance of her career.
The spiky speech comes from the pen of Nicole Holofcener, who was originally set to direct the picture too. Instead, Marielle Heller takes the helm, and finds just the right balance between Holofcener’s typically delicious dialogue and the sincere emotions they conceal. Indeed, in other hands, this offbeat crime story might have become a Coen-esque caper, or a quirky comedy. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, though, finds melancholy substance beneath its slight surface, as it grows into an exploration of someone who only finds themself when impersonating other people. Based on the memoir of the same name by Israel, it’s all too apt that the title is a quote from a letter by Dorothy Parker. A writer without a voice, a talent unable to get recognition, Israel’s life is an entertaining, ironically honest story of two people striving to overcome isolation and loneliness at any cost.