Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is far from a great movie, but it will end up being a major player when the ever-irritating awards season rolls around. It’s well done, entertaining enough, smart-ish, sweet-ish, anchored by two solid showoff performances, and perfectly watchable as a timewaster.
This is the type of movie that wouldn’t be made were it not for the existence of annual movie awards. No one would ever be passionate about the project if not for that.
Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a fairly notorious figure in the world of celebrity correspondence collecting. Unfamiliar with that world? Not a surprise. If you were, you’d know her name. You see, Lee Israel was a moderately successful author of biographies who found it nearly impossible to hold down a job due to her eccentricities. At a particularly low period in her life, she started forging letters from great authors in the past such as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. She was a talented enough writer that she was able to trick some local buyers and collectors. For a while, she lived off the scam, even incorporating her friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a fellow jovial alcoholic failure whose primary gifts in life were charming and lying. Together, they made it work for a while. Then the FBI caught on. Things ended badly. Then Israel wrote a book about it. Now, they’ve made that book into a film. You’re officially caught up.
It’s a fun enough idea for a film. The story takes place in a weird little world populated by eccentric characters designed to inspire actors. The script comes from Nicole Holofcener, who has made a career out of gently dark-ish character-driven dramedies (Friends with Money, Enough Said, etc.). The movie is also the second feature from director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), who proved to be pretty talented at nailing that tone herself.
With that pair, the film should be better. Somehow, it never feels funny enough, weird enough, dark enough, painful enough, or touching enough. To be fair, the movie is still all those things in small doses, which is an accomplishment in itself. It just never pushes far enough into any of those directions to define itself in a unique way. Perhaps the result of studio interference, the movie feels watered down. However, at least it remains fun throughout.
That modest success can be attributed almost entirely to the leads. Melissa McCarthy does quite well in her neurotic mess of a role, somehow making the character empathetic and lovable beneath all the self-loathing and neuroses. Even better is Richard E. Grant playing the type of hyper-articulate drunken buffoon that only he can. Both performers get to stretch their established screen personas into dramatic territory without getting lost in weepy Oscar clip territory. Anyone who enjoys those actors should get a big kick out of seeing what they do here. It’s just a shame that the film around them never quite lives up to its potential despite the best efforts of all the talented folks involved.