At the outset, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? wallows so deeply into the loneliness of down on her luck biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) that you may feel the people around you in the theater disappear. We see every social interaction suffocate her as she dives deeper and deeper into her vices, alcohol being the most pressing. But then, she finds something that finally not only pays her bills, but gives her life a greater purpose. She begins writing counterfeit letters from famous literary icons and selling them to gullible dealers. Through this, she not only finds her voice again but starts to open herself up to new relationships, particularly with partner in crime Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant).
This is a character study, through and through, that gives Melissa McCarthy an opportunity to show that she is capable of far more than pratfall porn. She dives right into Isreal’s cutting personality, using her innate sarcastic wit as a weapon. Whenever she’s talking with another person, we see her defense mechanisms kick in. Everything from a tense confrontation with her agent to an ambiguous date with a friendly bookstore owner has an air of cynical reservation. This makes the moments of vulnerability all the more powerful. She has terrific chemistry with the flamboyant and often hilarious Grant, who is a pitch perfect foil to her crabby spirals of self loathing. In their interactions, we start to see the humanity that initially seems lacking, and as they dive deeper and deeper into white collar crime, we become scared for them.
The way the film engages with Isreal and Hock’s queerness is commendable. We see it as a part of their lives that creates heartache not through oppression, but through, well…heartbreak. Lee’s silence towards present and future romantic partners is particularly powerful, giving us a couple of the film’s most wrenching sequences.
Heller’s visual interpretation of 90s era New York renders itself classical in nature. Every shot is often soaked with golden brown hues, not dissimilar to the pieces of old paper Isreal writes on. The direction is never showy, always letting the actors take full command of the scene. It has just enough style to stand out, in fact, it feels like a movie from some time ago that was remastered for modern audiences.
While it’s not a particularly long film, each scene takes its time to unfold, even if we’re just watching a character walking down the street. However, the slow pace does hinder the momentum of the first act. The story doesn’t truly start gaining momentum for some time, leaving us wondering in the early goings if we’re simply in for a lengthy portrait of a very depressed person. The middle zips along, but it does start to trip over its feet towards the end. After a while, Isreal’s scams become repetitive and her ultimate downfall less visceral than Heller intended. The inconsistency will probably hinder it from receiving any major awards nominations, save for McCarthy.
While it never quite finds enough of a voice to be considered a must see, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is often as compelling as the fake letters Isreal wrote for her victims. McCarthy is fantastic and this should be the beginning of a whole new chapter for her career. Where her Oscar nominated turn in Bridesmaids pigeonholed her, this shows just how much range she truly has. It’s a look into how creativity manifests in isolation, that ironically, will be best experienced if you have somebody to talk with afterwards.