Melissa McCarthy stars as literary forger in fascinating character study in “Can You Ever Forgive Me”

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is set in New York in the early 1990s, and takes place in grimy flats, seedy bars, and old-school diners. Israel (McCarthy), a confessed slob with a drinking problem, is fired from her day job for insulting her boss.

This true story of small-scale forgery and deceit is elevate by a deeply felt and well-schoole performance. That from Melissa McCarthy, and a colourful showing from British actor Richard E. Grant.

Base on a memoir by biography writer Lee Israel, who forge letters from deceased literary stars to get by when she hit a rough patch. The story peaks early because writer Nicole Holofcener sticks to the facts. But as a character study it’s excellent, strengthen by director Marielle Heller’s decision to avoid any scenes of sentimentality or redemption.

This is a story about mean and unpleasant people, and it stays that way right to the end – and is all the better for it.

Israel’s main gig is as a biographer, but she’s having difficulty finding a taker for her next book.

After selling a genuine letter written by Katharine Hepburn, Israel forges spicy letters by literary luminaries like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, and flogs them to eager collectors. She forms an unlikely relationship with the flamboyant street hustler Jack (Richard E. Grant), who becomes her salesman. But the two are clumsy criminals, and suspicions are raise.

McCarthy essays a misanthropic role, and it’s to her credit that she doesn’t try to make Israel likeable. We understand Israel, we feel for her, but she is always. As Jack tells her, a bit of a “c***” in her dealings with other people. Grant is an enjoyable bonus, as his Jack reminds of the cult character he play in 1987’s Withnail and I.

The quality of their Academy Awards nominate performances in this blackly funny drama leaves Cath Clarke rooting. That for the bitchy, boozy pairing of Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant.

The heroine of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a lot of things.

She’s rude. She’s a middle-aged cat lady. She is almost certainly an alcoholic. She definitely has a personality ill-suited to office life (the film opens with her being fired for telling her supervisor to “fuck off” while drinking whisky at her desk).

One thing she’s not is likeable – which is initially jarring, because likeability is a character trait share by 99 per cent of female protagonists in movies. She is the real-life writer-turn-forger Lee Israel – play beautifully here by Melissa McCarthy. Abetted by Richard E Grant in a glorious Withnail-y supporting role.

McCarthy is best known for comedies like The Heat and Bridesmaids. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a comedy. But it is a funny drama – and by miles McCarthy’s most demanding role yet. Set in early Nineties New York, Israel’s career as a respected journalist and celebrity biographer is at a standstill. Flat broke, she sells a letter Katharine Hepburn once wrote her.

The $50 she gets from a dealer gives Lee an idea, impersonating famous dead people

The likes of Marlene Dietrich, Noël Coward and Ernest Hemingway – in forged letters typed on old manual typewriters with faked signatures. It’s a lucrative business until the FBI starts sniffing about.

Along with Grant, McCarthy has been Oscar-nominated for her performance. And she deserves a prize for her grim transformation into Israel alone . That drab beige trouser suits, huge unflattering glasses and a haircut like her head’s been dangled over a paper shredder. The film was originally written by Nicole Holofcener for Julianne Moore whose radiator warmth as an actor. I suspect, would have made the character a bit too sympathetic.

What’s so sublime about McCarthy’s Israel is that she has no interest in being likeable. “I don’t think you’re a very nice person,” says her posh English gay pal Jack Hock (Grant). Lee shrugs. “I’d agree with that.” Asshole is a quality that doesn’t offend us in male characters, but we don’t expect it from women. Credit to the dream team of Holofcener. Director Marielle Heller and McCarthy for holding their nerve and not making Israel nicer.

There is an unlikely love story here in the friendship between Israel and Hock

Who is the only living creature in the world she can call a friend – unless you count her ageing arthritic cat. With camp theatricality Hock styles himself like a modern Oscar Wilde, and the pair get royally pissed in gay bars. Their nasty banter is rather sweet.

Lee, you are a horrid cunt,” Jack says to her semi-fondly. And there’s a lovely scene where he helps her clean her flat – sweeping out dried cat poo from under the bed with tissues stuffed up his nostrils. Israel recruits Hock as her partner in crime when literary dealers begin to suspect her of forgery.

Melissa McCarthy as “Lee Israel” and Richard E. Grant as “Jack Hock” in the film CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Israel is anti-social and aggressive but you do find yourself rooting for her. We so often watch movies where men commit reprehensible violent crimes (I sometimes find myself wondering about the impact on their fictional victims.) Israel’s crimes, while not victimless, are small fry. She forges to pay the rent and vet bills for her cat’s medicine. Then, there is McCarthy’s performance – without softening Israel, she shows how intensely lonely she is. And isn’t there something we can all relate to in her disappointment with life? “I thought I was supposed to be more than this.”


Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use)
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Directed By: Marielle Heller
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells
Written By: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
In Theaters: Oct 19, 2018 Limited
Runtime: 107 minutes
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Charlotte O’Sullivan
This film takes an altogether different view of the imitation game. By embracing frauds and failures, it achieves greatness on the sly.

Kevin Maher
The revelation of McCarthy’s turn is that she’s just allowed to be, without apology, without schmaltz.

Peter Bradshaw
McCarthy is very good at showing how Lee’s unpleasant bad temper and rudeness were not simply part of her psychological makeup: they were symptoms of existential panic.

David Jenkins
Everything – performance, script, direction, cinematography – works in perfect concert.

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