Lee (Melissa McCarthy) is a struggling writer whose agent won’t call her back. She tips the contents of one glass into another and drinks it all, sipping scotch and soda to tolerate the sound of a successful man at a party telling his immediate entourage that he doesn’t ‘subscribe to the term 'writer’s block'. She’s late on her rent and can’t afford the vet’s fees to find out what’s wrong with her cat, Jersey, and she isn’t getting very far with her upcoming biography – there’s nothing new or sexy about Fanny Brice, so we’re told.
A biographer is no less of a writer for telling another person’s story, but in spite of the sporadic success in Lee’s body of work, she’s still not impressive enough. She’s told that as an unknown, she simply can’t be such a bitch. McCarthy slips into Lee’s skin with a deep scowl and layers of tough fabric hiding the shape of what she feels. She lives alone with Jersey, and doesn’t have anyone else to care about in her life. When she accidentally comes across a rare letter in a research project, the tangibility of another person’s open thoughts gives her a chance to live her life for something. A ‘P.S’ is all it takes for Lee’s undeniable talent (and casual theft) to kickstart her creativity again. The criminality is just a detail.
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant offer terrific chemistry in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Can You Ever Forgive Me? relates a moment in history that fascinated the FBI as much as collectors and fans, but it’s far from any kind of heist movie. Instead of focusing on the thrill of the scam by trying to work out how she did it, the film makes room for Lee’s activity to reflect the necessity of creative stimulation and emotional vulnerability. McCarthy rarely struggles to make people laugh, but the humour in Lee’s embittered insecurities anchors a performance that marks a clear turning point in the actor’s career. The laughter of her Lee Israel isn’t negligible – there’s a wheeze in her breath, and it’s hard to tell whether she’s smiling or crying. It could be either, as wit doesn’t necessarily entail happiness and frowning pauses punctuate the flow of her words.
Heller facilitates deft storytelling that hits recognisable beats without ever feeling contrived or predictable. Lee’s romantic difficulties are treated with dignity, even and especially when she has to break bad news to an ex-girlfriend. Her friendship with Jack (Richard E. Grant) is given a light touch, while teaching a valuable lesson about loyalty. Nate Heller’s cyclical score lifts the mood and maintains a sense of excitement, in climactic moments as much as proof in Lee’s potentially pathetic stillness as well.
When telling a true story, it’s easy to trace the facts of the source material to deliver a sufficiently convincing account of what happened. This could have been a paint-by-numbers biopic of a woman who faked her way to survive, but like Lee, Marielle Heller is doing more than just forging, much more than simply tiptoeing around other people’s talent. The film avoids clichés or tidy conclusions. It’s inspiring in its complexity, through the voluntary understanding that, as the New York Times said of her memoir, just because you’re sordid it doesn’t mean you’re not pretty damned fabulous too.
Reviewed at the 2018 London Film Festival. Can You Ever Forgive Me? will be released in UK cinemas on 1 February 2019.
|What||Can You Ever Forgive Me? film review|
01 Feb 19 – 01 Feb 20, TIMES VARY
|Price||£ determined by cinemas|
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