As the leaves fall from the trees, and the weather grows colder, for film fans it only means one thing; “Art-house Season.” Yes, the wonderful season where biopics roam like giant behemoths, the term “Based on a True Story” has commercial appeal, comedians in dramatic roles pop up more than a Starbucks, and there are enough all-star casts in said films to fill up a movie premiere. Yes, it’s honestly a wonderful time to be alive ladies and gentlemen, and the film I’m reviewing fits nicely into three of the four categories. This film is Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the dramatic debut of Melissa McCarthy. I have mixed feelings about Miss McCarthy; on the one hand, in short bursts, she is very funny, if you need any more proof see her work on SNL. On the other hand, her feature films have tended to be divisive or terrible; you can understand my hesitation. This being said; the number of comedic actors who have stretched their acting chops into dramatic roles and have had success with it, in the modern era, is reassuring. This list includes the likes of Bradley Cooper, Jonah Hill, and Steve Carell, to name three. So, I understand where she could be coming from looking at these three and thinking: “Let’s try that.” But enough about potential motivations; let’s get to the summary itself.
The film is a “Based on a true story” film about Lee Israel, a struggling former writer, who’s been fired from her job, and now drinks in a gay bar in New York, where she meets Jack Hock (played by Richard E. Grant), a gay sometimes writer and they hit it off, over several drinks. What follows is a story involved her forging celebrity documents, a lesbian friendship, and other unique twists and turns. Personally, I think this film belongs in the same category as films like The Wolf of Wall Street, and American Hustle; a new sub-genre I call “True Crime comedies”, where it’s a crime film, and it has dramatic elements, yet the film has more of a comedic bent, based on the events which played out and Can You Ever Forgive Me? falls perfectly into said sub-genre.
Since I’ve already talked about the story, let’s talk about what makes the film works, namely the performances of McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, and a well-polished script. Usually, comedy-turned-dramatic roles show a side of said comedians, which makes any critic go: “This is wonderful, why haven’t we seen this earlier?” This question, not surprisingly was relevant while watching the film; McCarthy shows a human side to Lee Israel, which is entirely unexpected; the late Miss Israel was a horrible person; however, there’s an earnestness here; which is quite surprising, you believe McCarthy’s desperation, at the end of the film, you may still feel the way, about Lee Israel, but you’re downright impressed by McCarthy’s performance.
The other part of this which clicked so well was Grant’s portrayal of Jack Hock; the cold blue-eyed gay cynic lush, whom Miss Israel becomes fast friends. Grant is performing his heart out in this role, portraying Rock as this rapscallion Harold Hill; the kind who would steal your heart and wallet, with a drink in one hand, and a pipe in the other. I’m probably reading this wrong, but again there is a joy of his performance, which made me like his character. I mentioned the joy of performance on Grant’s part, and this plays out whenever McCarthy and Grant are making prank phone calls and the scene where they torment a bookseller who was haughty to Israel earlier in the film. I was watching this scene, and thinking; “These are horrible people, and I’m laughing with them.” This either says a lot about me or the film itself, which expects us to sympathize (or at least relate) to these people, and the sad thing is, it works. I honestly don’t know whether to applaud the film for the nuance or criticize it to high heaven. The feeling I’m getting is praise because it’s set up earlier in the movie.
I feel a bit of the nuance was due to the film’s script. The screenplay is credited to two people: Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener. Whitty won a Tony Award for Best Book in ’04 with Avenue Q, and Holofcener was one of the “Sundance Generation” in the 90s and has had critical success with Friends with Money in ’06, and Enough Said in 2013. It’s honestly not a surprise; the film turned out as well as it did; with this kind of talent. I’m not saying you can guarantee success with writing talent, but here, you probably could have.
If there’s one thing you could potentially harp on, is the pacing, it felt a bit slow at times. You could cut around five-ten minutes out, and you’d probably have a better film, but this would be an insult, considering the film is legitimately good without the edit. This is the director’s (Marielle Heller) second film, so there is some room for improvement, still, if this is her second film, and she got great performances, honestly, she should have a unique career.
So, this leads to the big question: Is the film good? The answer is an unequivocal yes, without a doubt. Despite the film falling into three major clichés, right off the bat: (A comedian doing a dramatic role, A Based on a true-story film, and a true crime film), the film redeems itself with solid writing and great performances by both leads (McCarthy and Grant). If it’s playing in your area, I recommend you seek it out.