24 Dec 2018

Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

From Widescreen, 12:53 pm on 24 December 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me? proves that Melissa McCarthy has the dramatic chops to go with her abundant comedic skills, says Dan Slevin.

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Photo: Mary Cybulski/Fox

Back in May this year, in a review of the Melissa McCarthy comedy vehicle Life of the Party, I ventured the opinion that there was clearly a real actress somewhere under all that self-directed cruelty and that I looked forward to the day when we got to see it.

Sooner than I thought, that day has arrived with the release of the Manhattan-set fraud flick Can You Ever Forgive Me? 

In It, McCarthy plays alcoholic author Lee Israel, writer of a couple of successful biographies but now down on her uppers in the Upper West Side. Israel is, to put it mildly, a difficult person to be around and only her long-suffering cat seems up for the challenge. The more professional relationships she burns and she has no obvious personal ones to make up for them – she finds it harder and harder to pay the rent.

One day, during a fitful attempt at research, she discovers a letter written by the famous vaudevillian Fanny Brice and decides to see what she can sell it for. When she discovers that there are collectors willing to part with some serious coin for a piece of literary memorabilia, and that there are intermediaries who can engineer that exchange without worrying too much about whether the items are genuine, Israel starts a lucrative career forging letters by the likes of Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker and Louise Brooks.

No caption

Photo: Fox

As mentioned, McCarthy is a stand-out – making an unsympathetic character so compelling is not easy – but it’s an equal pleasure to see Richard E. Grant back in Withnail territory as the louche and lonely Jack Hock, a charming loser who drifts from street relationship to street relationship via the occasional drug deal. 

But there's a third main character in Can You Forgive Me?: Manhattan, an island of indifference if ever there was one. Sinatra sang 'if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere', but what if you can’t make it there? It’s a brutal environment where people like Israel and Hock are forced to make some pretty poor choices to survive.

Admittedly, they don’t struggle too hard with those choices, but it’s clear that New York is pretty unforgiving.

No caption

Photo: Fox

Directed by Marielle Heller, whose first film The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015 was a revelation in many ways, Can You Forgive Me? stands out from the crowd as a compassionate portrayal of a fascinating true story.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is in theatrical release at selected cinemas across New Zealand.