This review was originally published as part of our London Film Festival coverage on 21/10/2018.
While Melissa McCarthy has found name recognition, widespread acclaim and even an Academy Award nomination for her foul-mouthed comedy, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is her first intentional foray into the awards circuit. McCarthy sinks her teeth into Lee Israel, an acerbic soul embittered by wasted talent. It’s a fairly standard biopic heightened by an unflinching lead performance – not to mention the unique voice of Israel herself, which bleeds through the celluloid.
Based on her autobiography, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is both a harsh self-critique of Israel and an unapologetic retelling of her best years. A sharp wit and mean drunk, there’s a lot for McCarthy to work with, and she delivers a brash performance that never feels like a caricature.
Literary forging doesn’t sound particularly fascinating, but director Marielle Heller sucks you in with rustling pages and musty bookshelves. 1990s New York in winter is not the most original setting, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? is tinged with the most irresistible melancholy – like a late-night walk in the snow, or an afternoon in a dusty bookshop.
It’s McCarthy’s film, but the film’s best moments are in the dialogue as Israel’s caustic self lashes out at those left in her orbit. Richard E. Grant has an absolute blast as Jack Hock, another author down on his luck turned small-time dealer, sot and Israel’s sidekick. It’s peak Grant and a kinetic joy to watch. In a quieter performance, Dolly Wells is magnetic – offering a possible path of redemption for Israel that she just can’t quite walk.
Don’t ask for permission; ask for forgiveness. Can You Ever Forgive Me? isn’t really interested in absolution for its subject, but at its heart it is asking a question: can we give Melissa McCarthy more opportunities like this?
CAST: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone
DIRECTOR: Marielle Heller
WRITERS: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty (screenplay), Lee Israel (based on the book by)
SYNOPSIS: Based on her autobiography, Can You Ever Forgive Me? tells the true story of bestselling celebrity biographer Lee Israel, who, out of step with current tastes, turns her art form to deception with the help of her loyal friend, Jack.