Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
Directed by Marielle Heller
“St. Vincent” was Melissa McCarthy’s best movie to date, but her role in that Bill Murray starrer was limited. Maybe her best performance would’ve been her breakout role in “Bridesmaids,” but the rest of the film struggled to click on her level. The two pieces—a terrific, noteworthy McCarthy performance, and a high-quality movie overall—have never come together for McCarthy…until now. Now, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” offers up what I would consider Melissa McCarthy’s best performance, in arguably the best movie she’s ever been a part of. To call it a straight drama would undermine McCarthy’s deadpan comedic talent, and also that of her costar Richard E. Grant, but the movie does mark a tonal shift in McCarthy’s resume, and lets the world know that she’s ready for higher quality fare than “Identity Thief” and “The Boss.”
Set in the early 1980s, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is based on the true story of Lee Israel (McCarthy), a down-of-her-luck biographer whose latest offering, an Estee Lauder biography that lacked the passion of her other works, was a critical and commercial failure. Without even enough cash to take her cat to the vet, Israel finds alternative ways of making ends meet—first petty theft, and then, after a “eureka!” moment, learning to convincingly forge notes by famed writers and actors. Her criminal enterprise roped in a new friend and confidante, the “company” to her “misery,” John Hock (Grant), but no good thing lasts forever.
The character study provides ample opportunity for McCarthy to unwrap her meatiest performance to date, and she takes advantage. It was important that Israel was played by someone who could elicit empathy in the audience, even if her actions and her personality could be deemed disagreeable. McCarthy is a great choice. Everything about the way the script was written and the character was portrayed makes you understand why Israel did the things she did. You feel sorry for her, even if her demeanor isn’t your cup of tea. She’s relatable despite almost everything about her. Richard E. Grant could be called a sidekick to Israel, since he does all the sorts of things a typical “sidekick” does. But what Grant does with this role is more than what it required or deserved. He gives one of the year’s best supporting performances by melting into his character. I had forgotten that I had ever seen Grant in a movie before (not that he’s a household name by any means) because he’s so good in this role.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” boasts one of the year’s best scripts, but it helps that McCarthy and Grant handle the snappy dialogue so tremendously. Based on Israel’s own memoir, the film gets to the heart of her life. I wish Israel was still alive to see it, even though it doesn’t shy away from her rough edges. I think it’s good that, even though most of her books have been out of print for decades, someone was so interested in her fascinating life that they made a movie starring one of the most financially successful actresses in Hollywood. I hope their bet pays off. Go see the movie.