FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES (2019)
Director: Marielle Heller
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin
Hallmark should start selling a card with this title.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the big screen adaptation of the memoirs of Lee Israel, an author-turned-forger who, in the early-nineties, made a stack load of cash forging letters from departed authors and playwrights and selling them to eager collectors – all with the help of her friend Jack Hock. All good fun until the FBI got involved. Directed by Marielle Heller, the movie is part-biography, part-buddy jaunt, and part-crime drama but never deviates from being damn good.
Melissa McCarthy steps into the shoes of lonely, aggrieved, alcoholic, fifty-something Lee Israel in a straight-up role far removed from some of her more recent efforts (see: not so good efforts). As straight-talking Israel, her character is wholly unlikable, however, deft acting, directing and writing ensures we always feel connected with her and on her side. The range she displays is excellent and it’s a career-best performance from a supremely talented actress. Similarly, Richard E. Grant is sensational as Jack Hock – Lee’s homosexual friend who loves nothing more than drink, debauchery and just having fun (the last attribute setting him at the opposite end of the spectrum to Israel). His infectious swagger is magnetic and Grant’s cheeky Withnail & I persona shines through once more. Together, the pair are dynamite, a real pair of scoundrels and rascals. The movie never shies away from showing the pair as who they are (often unsavoury) and it’s this authenticity that ensures they remain captivating. Their chemistry and scenes provide the movie's highlights and when Can You Ever Forgive Me? strays from their joint story, it loses some spark – not a lot, but the two are so good, you just want more.
The screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty is sharp, concise, and just like Jeff himself, it’s witty – there are some extremely dry, funny moments throughout alongside more emotional scenes (including courtrooms and cats – not together - amongst other things). The movie never loses momentum (even when the two rogues aren’t together) and even in the slower moments, the writing and direction keep everything ticking along nicely. The crime drama aspect isn’t as strong as the other aspects that make up the movie, but even then the quality remains high. Something else that ticks along just nicely is the jazz soundtrack - the songs being personal favourites of Israel. The choices help with the tone even further, along with some great nineties-costume design.
The story of Lee Israel is absorbing, though, in lesser hands, Can You Ever Forgive Me? could really have fallen apart. The appreciation and fondness that is afforded to her story drives the movie entirely. A crotchety, anti-social ex-author would have been unpleasant in different hands and the charismatic jack could have fallen into caricature in a less-skilled grasp. Hellier’s tight direction keeps everything together wonderfully and every aspect combines to deliver a superb movie. McCarthy and Grant are dynamite together and the pair of rascals may be my new favourite on-screen buddy pairing.
January 24th 2019