Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the kind of movie you see every year during Oscar season. A low budget film, based on a stranger than fiction true story, and starring a barely recognisable Hollywood A-lister. Films like Dallas Buyers Club, Foxcatcher, and I, Tonya are prime examples, to name just three from the past few years. They generally do very well in the acting categories, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? is no exception.
Melissa McCarthy is outstanding as Lee Israel, a literary biographer who has fallen on hard times. She is behind in her rent, has bills to pay, a sick cat that needs expensive treatment, and a career that is completely unravelling. Whilst researching a new biography of vaudeville star Fanny Brice, Lee stumbles across some original letters written by Brice. After discovering they aren’t very valuable, she slips one of them into her typewriter and adds a spicy P.S. to it. The dealers and booksellers of New York are suddenly far more interested, and far more generous with their cash.
Initially starting small, Lee gradually becomes a mass forger of what she calls elite collectible literary artefacts. She forges correspondence from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, selling them to dealers all over New York. Her old friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) is soon roped into the scheme, and this delightful pair of misanthropic misfits take the literary world for a ride.
The performances from these two are undoubtedly the main attraction of the film. Grant is sublime as the decadent louche drug-dealing Hock, and his fabulous success during awards season this year was hugely deserved. McCarthy meanwhile has never been better, proving once again that people who are naturally funny have an intuitive roadmap to the melancholic underside of the human psyche. Lee could easily have been portrayed as a two-dimensional grumpy cat-lady, but McCarthy’s fearless performance adds layer upon layer of compassion and complexity to this desperately lonely and challenging character.
Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s excellent screenplay explores the condition of writer’s block in an original and fascinating way. Lee’s career has stalled because she is afraid to write in her own voice, but as her forgery career flourishes she discovers that she is outstanding at impersonating others. She finds her voice (and overcomes her writer’s block) by mimicking others, eventually declaring that she has become a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker herself.
Elegantly directed by Marielle Heller, authentically evoking early 90s New York, Can You Ever Forgive Me? delivers exactly what you would expect from this type of film. Muted autumnal visuals, a vintage soundtrack, and tremendous attention to detail. So yes, this is your typical, gentle “Oscar movie” but it’s utterly charming from start to finish, and McCarthy and Grant are superb.
The DVD release (sadly no Blu-ray from the folks at Fox yet again) comes with an audio commentary from Marielle Heller and Melissa McCarthy. There are ten-minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes. Also on the disc are four short featurettes, including an elevator pitch from the director, a short piece about McCarthy taking the role and her process of becoming Lee Israel. There’s another piece about the friendship between Lee and Jack, and finally a featurette about recreating the fabulous old bookshops of Manhattan.
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin Director:Marielle Heller Writer: Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty Released By: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment Certificate: 15 Duration: 107 mins Release Date: 3rd June 2019