It is time we give Melissa McCarthy the respect she deserves. She has been displaying her versatility and range every since the criminally underrated film The Nines. Yes, she has become more associated with broad comedies, but hopefully Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? will open a pathway to even more dramatic works.
Giving a wonderful and understated performance, McCarthy thrives as best-selling celebrity biographer Lee Israel. When Israel’s brand of books no longer excites readers, or her agent (Jane Curtin) for that matter, the abrasive author finds herself on hard times. Behind on rent, and with no money to get the vet to look at her ailing cat, the jobless Israel is in desperate need of getting her life back on track. Discovering that there is a collector’s market for celebrity artifacts, Israel starts forging letters from famous women, like Katharine Hepburn, and selling them around town.
However, when the FBI starts to investigate the letters, Israel finds herself further tangled in a suffocating web of deceit.
The screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, does a solid job of giving context to Israel’s motivations without condoning her actions. Heller keeps her narrative rather straightforward forgoing any distracting stylistic flourishes. This allows the performances to shine through. McCarthy is wonderful as the jaded Israel, bringing the adequate amount of dry wit and sadness to the role. Her scenes with Richard E. Grant, who is delightful as Israel’s friend Jack, further highlight the sense of isolation residing within the character.
Heller also does a good job of touching on Israel’s sexual orientation without making the defining trait of the character as often is the case with biopics. The scenes between Israel and bookstore owner Anna (Dolly Wells), offers a glimpse into the softer side hiding beneath the biographer’s tough exterior, while also showing the difficultly Israel had connecting with others on a personal level.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a solid portrait of a talented writer who lost sight of herself in the words of others.