I can compare “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” to a neat bourbon. Pleasant notes, burns a little as you work through it, and leaves you feeling surprisingly warm.
The big draw of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was, of course, Melissa McCarthy and her first notable deviation from the slapstick comedy that made her a household name. It’s one of the petty paradoxes of discussing entertainment. It’s very easy to criticize an actor for taking the same role over and over again, but the minute they break form the commentary, “stick with what you’re good at” looms ominously.
I was curious to see for myself and found myself pleasantly surprised by “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” though that impression cannot be credited solely to McCarthy.
Director Marielle Heller helms this adaptation of best-selling celebrity biographer Lee Israel’s popular memoir of the same name. Melissa McCarthy goes somber for her performance as Lee Israel and Richard Grant turns it up several notches as co-conspirator Jack Hock.
The film tells the true story of writer and biographer Lee Israel. Originally known for her intimate portraits of celebrities, Israel’s works fall behind current demand and she finds herself in a rough patch (both personally and professionally). She puts her skills to work, forging private letters of notable figures for the collector’s market.
It’s damn interesting to see such an elegant crime committed by two of the crassest people. McCarthy’s Lee Israel is bitter, offensive and drab. Her counterpart, Jack, is filthy and fabulous. It’s a wonder that these characters were ever able to so seamlessly blend into the haughty world of literary artifact collectors. The juxtaposition made for some of the greatest unintentional comedy in the film.
It’s not often that I go out of my way to compliment the writing in a film, but it feels appropriate as this is the story of a writer. The outlook of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is incredibly grim. The circumstances are bleak and the world is populated entirely by the unsavory; there are very few characters in the film that are 100 percent likable. But through all that grit and grime is this sardonic strand of humor and a small glimmer of hope.
That balance is the most masterful element of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Well done.
A review of the film would feel incomplete without commenting on McCarthy’s performance. Did she pull it off? Does she have the acting chops for drama?
The short answer is yes. The more thorough answer is that she cheated a little bit. This was the right dramatic role for her.
Look at any of McCarthy’s film credits and you see the following pattern: loud, vulgar, bold and, some would even say, obnoxious. What was Lee Israel? Vulgar, loud and some would even say obnoxious.
Granted, there was a subtle quality to the character. An internal turmoil that simply isn’t written into comedy characters. Lee is a tragic figure in the film that hides behind her wall of vulgarity and spite. McCarthy’s comedic skills lend themselves perfectly to the character. It’s a deviation from the norm, but not a performance that exists in an entirely different vein.
None of this is to say that Melissa McCarthy didn’t absolutely kill it in the role. She did. I would just be hesitant to herald this as something completely new for her.
If I had one criticism for Melissa McCarthy is that she was defenseless against Richard Grant’s scenery chewing. God DAMN what a fun character! I was there for McCarthy, I stayed for Grant. His performance as Jack Hock was the highlight of the entire film, oozing with vivacious charm.
My primary critique of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was pacing. Moments had a tendency to drag and I never felt that the film had a consistent rhythm. The ending was a tad abrupt and I wanted more out of some of the relationships that were introduced. These elements seemed to come and go, leaving us to wonder about their significance. Why show us something only for it to never go anywhere?
In fitting fashion, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is an intimate portrait of a character stranger than fiction. It’s nothing to rush out to on opening weekend but is worth keeping on your radar. Pairs well with bourbon.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” releases in Austin on Nov. 2.
Caitlin is a lean, mean writing machine based in Austin, TX. Her love of film began when she was shown “Rosemary’s Baby” way too early in life. Bylines include The Financial Diet and Film Inquiry. Caitlin is a member of the Online Association of Female Film Critics and the Women Film Critics Circle.