“Can you ever forgive me” is a perfect outing for those who enjoy clever writing brought to life by two actors at the peak of their powers. Go see it.
There’s a couple of things about Marielle Heller’s film that make it more than a little memorable. Initially, there’s the fact that this is a film in love with words, and vehement in its deference to the value of the printed word. Secondly, it’s one of those uniquely New York films in every way – its setting (obviously), its look, its music and its overall tone. But it’s also a textbook case of making smart, witty, well-performed films for grown-ups. There needs to be more like this.
This film is a rare gem of a thing; well worth seeking out if you’re the kind of cinema-goer who enjoys great, smart writing, and two actors working at the peak of their form.
Melissa McCarthy has always been someone to own whatever role she occupies, and there’s any number of screen performances where she really owns every scene she’s in. See her in any one of her SNL performances and you’ll realise that she has a once-in-a-generation degree of comic timing and ability. So when it comes to it being played straight, she pulls of one of those great performances you’d not expect from the same person who pulled off that bathroom scene in Bridesmaids. She’s great in this – we have the opposite of a vanity project, and McCarthy shows us Lee Israel in all but literal warts and all fashion. She’s moody, rude, drunk and not nice to be around; it makes little sense that Richard E Grant’s Jack wants to spend any time with her, aside from the fact that she has a couch to crash on.
Grant himself is wonderful in this. Since Withnail and I in 1987 he’s been one of those actors who seldom misses the mark (let’s try to forget Hudson Hawk), so to see him with something truly meaty is a treat. He’s wonderful in this – a serious loser, but a charming one at that.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a film which raises the notion of the ends justifying the means, in that it’s a story of someone writing fraudulent letters of note – obviously a crime – but at the same time it tells us where the film makers stand in terms of the gradual devaluing of quality writing in modern society. Lee Israel (a real person; the story here is based on her memoir) reflects that the fake letters she penned by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward constituted the best work of her life; she’s someone who can’t get published while populist hacks like Tom Clancy are raking in the dough. For someone who plies their trade on words, it rang more than a little bit true, and I’m sure it’s a notion close to the heart of screenwriters Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener – she’s one of the better independent American auteurs out there.
This is a smaller-than-average treat to be sought out in the more discerning arthouse cinemas. You’d best not blink or you’ll miss its theatrical run; and be sure to keep an eye for its moment of glory during awards season.