We’ve never seen Melissa McCarthy quite as she is in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? She’s known for big, broad comedic performances, and while she has done more serious work before, never quite like this. She’s stripped-down, gritty, mean and magnificent. As someone who loves her work in comedy, even the bad ones, I will say that this is undoubtedly her best performance to date. Even better, it’s matched with filmmaking that’s on her level.
Lee Israel (McCarthy) is a once-successful author of biographies who is now struggling to find work, or a subject worth writing about. In her dark, ratty, smelly New York apartment, with only her beloved cat as company, she’s descended into alcoholism and isn’t the kind of person anyone wants to be around. She reconnects with Jack (Richard E. Grant,) an acquaintance who turns out to be a similarly lost soul. After begrudgingly selling a signed letter by Katharine Hepburn to a local bookshop, she realizes that there might be a market here. She makes a career out of selling forged letters that she claimed had been written by Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman, and others.
McCarthy is absolutely spectacular. She makes the character of Lee Israel, who could be completely unlikable and without redemption, a character to root for. Her desperation feels surprisingly real and although her isolation is kind of self-imposed, you feel for her in a way you wouldn’t with a lesser actor. She’s desperate but afraid to make a connection. Her friendship with a book-store employee (Dolly Wells) establishes her softer side and the kind of relationship she wants but is afraid to pursue. She’s the lovable curmudgeon, but not in the way you’d think. She’s nuanced and fascinating, and her journey is really one worth following.
Meanwhile, Richard E. Grant delivers a prickly and equally brilliant performance. He’s having a lot of fun in the part of Israel’s unlikely friend Jack. The way these two characters play off each other is captivating. These are two older queer characters that are living on the fringes, both feeling like the world has passed them by. Jack’s introduces himself as the sly, gay coke dealer, but as we begin to see the layers peel back from his performance, it becomes clear that this is as three-dimensional of a characterization as that of Lee Israel.
Nicole Holofcener, one of my favorite directors who audiences don’t see enough from, co-wrote the screenplay with Jeff Whitty, one of the creators of the musical Avenue Q. They write about a very specific New York – post-AIDS, pre-Guiliani, gritty, dirty and real. It’s a crowded landscape of interesting people, but Israel feels lost and utterly alone. Holofcener and Whitty know how to craft a world in which this feels entirely authentic, and not self-indulgent or hokey.
Marielle Heller, who is directing the new Fred Rogers biopic, delivers another insightful and thought-provoking adult drama. And McCarthy, whose recent films have struggled to find a consistent tone and theme, has found the role that might win her an Oscar. Richard E. Grant could very well end up in the Oscar conversation as well. This is a film where the acting, the writing, the production design, and the music all find a balance that works. It also brings up some interesting questions about what constitutes art itself, and what it means for one to be successful. Can You Ever Forgive Me? Is one of the best films of 2018.