They say truth is stranger than fiction, and that’s especially evident in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the delightfully absurd and deliciously bizarre true story of a washed-up writer who discovers a knack for forgery and a strangely fulfilling career change she never saw coming. Mining the as-yet untapped but mightily impressive dramatic talents of comedic superstar Melissa McCarthy, this may be her career change you’re not expecting either. Following in the footsteps of other comedians who flipped their waning comical image (with Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders, 2018 hasn’t been a great year for McCarthy) with an unexpected “mature” role, this is easily her greatest performance yet.
While still eliciting plenty of deserved laughs with an entirely unlikable and cantankerous character, McCarthy finds the empathetic vulnerability hiding behind the tough exterior of this desperate, floundering writer, creating a performance that’s surprisingly touching and wildly impressive. Throw in a wonderfully delightful supporting turn from Richard E. Grant, an entertaining and constantly surprising narrative, and compassionate direction from Marielle Heller, and you’re left with one of the year’s biggest surprise packages and potential awards season dark horse.
Set in New York City, circa 1991, Lee Israel (McCarthy), a dour, depressed, alcoholic Manhattan author, is facing a crippling career crisis. After a few mildly successful biographies, Lee finds herself working in a low-level editorial job she despises. After her attitude (and penchant for drinking whisky at her desk) cost her that job, she desperately pitches a new biography on vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice to her unsupportive and impatient literary agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin). As Lee bemoans the outrageous million-dollar advances given to hack authors like Tom Clancy (“Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man,” she cries), Marjorie bluntly reminds her no one knows Lee Israel or is ever likely to.
Still determined to chase her goal of the unwanted Fanny Brice biography, Lee stumbles upon two letters written by Brice, hidden in the pages of a dusty old book in the New York Public Library. Quickly stashing the letters in her satchel, Lee learns she can make a few quick bucks selling the letters to a local bookstore, run by lonely Anna (Dolly Wells), a fan of Lee’s work who takes an instant shine to the author. With her bills piling up and her beloved cat (yes, she’s a cat lady) taking ill, Lee turns to forgery as a burgeoning source of income. Behind the keys of an array of old typewriters, Lee puts her writing skills to use in alternate ways by crafting witty and salacious letters from famous literary figures like Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and Lillian Hellman, finishing them with a forged signature and aging the papers in her oven.
As business booms and the process of producing hundreds of fakes takes over her life, Lee maintains her purposely solitary life until a chance encounter with flamboyantly gay Jack Hock (Grant, threatening to steal the entire film), a fellow alcoholic Manhattan nobody (who thinks he’s a somebody) who finds Lee’s sardonic wit and cranky demeanour entirely hilarious and inviting. As the pair form the strangest of connections, Lee enlists Jack in her growing operation by using his sly attitude (“Do not underestimate sparkling blues eyes and a little bit of street smarts,” he boasts) to sell even more letters to those dealers growing suspicious of Lee’s amazing literary “discoveries.” But their enterprise soon attracts the attention of the FBI, and it may only be a matter of time before it all comes crashing down.
While it’s an inherently dramatic role, Can You Ever Forgive Me? still makes full use of McCarthy’s impeccable comic timing and her knack for impassive humour. There’s still plenty of laughs to be found here, and it’s all but impossible not to fall in love with such a decidedly unlovable character. That’s the talent of McCarthy, who finds the tortured humanity in this role and takes great care with unfurling a deeply layered performance that will undoubtedly earn McCarthy her second Oscar nomination. Beneath Lee’s irascible and caustic persona is a lonely, unfulfilled, and insecure soul, and McCarthy captures that inner self with deft skill. The screenplay gifts McCarthy with several touchingly poignant moments that are beautiful to witness, particularly a climactic monologue that you’ll likely see replayed during awards season.
Providing additional comic relief is Grant, whose Jack is the ying to Lee’s yang. The two are polar opposites, yet somehow form a surprisingly deep friendship neither expected. Grant is sublime in his best role in years, instilling Jack with intoxicating charm and wild confidence. He steals every scene he’s given, in an equally Oscar nom-worthy performance. Yet there’s a longing sadness behind Jack’s brash exterior, making his odd connection with Lee seem that much more authentic. While neither will admit to their loneliness, they’re both clearly longing for any semblance of companionship, ultimately finding it in the unlikeliest of circumstances. McCarthy and Grant form a terrific duo, with their charming affinity for each other becoming the film’s true highlight.
You could call this a period film of sorts, with director Heller crafting a beautifully recreated early-1990s Manhattan with a vintage style from costume designer Arjun Bhasin, production designer Stephen Carter, and cinematographer Brandon Trost. While most films filmed in New York City love to capture the city’s lively summer or colourful spring, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is set during a bitterly cold and snowy winter, giving the film an authentically bleak tone rarely seen in Manhattan-based fare. But this dreary weather matches Lee’s sullen personality perfectly, and you can’t quite imagine viewing her life during any other season. Heller wisely avoids highlighting the city’s glamorous highlights, prefering to set her film within dusty bookshops, run-down apartments, and trashy bars, creating a style that’s unique and fitting.
In the hands of a lesser performer, watching the life and crimes of Lee Israel could have made for a rather flat experience. But McCarthy is such a captivating and compassionate actress, she makes Lee’s felonies strangely understandable and maybe even permissible. It’s a splash of irony pretending to be other writers elicited an author’s greatest work (and a subsequent best-selling biography, on which this film is based), but that’s the rousing joy of Can You Ever Forgive Me?. McCarthy turns an unlovable curmudgeon into someone you entirely adore, and, in the process, shows us the consummate performer she truly is.