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USA 2018
Directed by
Marielle Heller
107 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Synopsis: Celebrity biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is a professional writer whose career is at a low ebb.  Unable to pay the rent on her Manhattan apartment or the vet fees for her beloved cat, one day while doing research for her upcoming book on vaudvillean, Fanny Brice, she comes across a couple of letters by the entertainer. When she finds out that they are readily saleable she leaps into a new career as a literary forger.

Comedian Melissa McCarthy is well-known for her roles in low-brow fodder like Bridesmaids (2011) and The Boss (2016). Although she impressed in a support role In St Vincent (2014) as a struggling single mother with Can You Ever Forgive Me? she takes the lead role and does so to disarming effect.

Israel is an unlikeable character, an irascible, misanthropic celibate lesbian with a drinking problem who really doesn’t give a shit for anyone or anything other than her cat. In one revealing scene which she gets a pest exterminator up to her apartment he won’t enter because the smell from rotting food and cat faeces is so bad. She hadn’t even noticed. That’s how far she’s lost touch with the world. Of course cinema is able to throw some dream dust in our eyes and make what would be unacceptable in real life entertaining on screen and this is exactly what director Marielle Heller who with Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whittyadapted Israel’s own memoir, does.

Literate audiences will appreciate the references to Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, William Faulkner and Edna Ferber et al  and the knowing swipes at mercenary dealers in rare books and literary ephemera which together constitute the context for Israel’s story but the bulk of the satisfaction stems from the fine performances, especially from McCarthy and Richard E. Grant as her sometime accomplice, Jack Hock.  Playing Jack like Withnail fifty years on, now a career drunk and a flagrantly gay. homeless pan-handler. Grant will probably be getting more work as a result of his efforts here but it is McCarthy who will be garnering the most plaudits for her rounded performance as a woman who has regrets more than a few but who can’t help but call it as she sees it. She’s a far from appealing character but we can never take our eyes off her train-wreck of a trajectory particularly once she manages to convince herself that she actually is as good a writer as the authors whose letters she is forging. The support players are also strong with Dolly Wells giving a poignant performance as a lonely bookshop owner and Israel’s first victim with whom she forms a tentative relationship.

Despite the lugubrious tone which may put-off compulsively cheery viewers, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is more human comedy than life’s tragedy. As Israel admits to the judge at her trial, she has no regrets for what was probably the best time of her life.  Marielle Heller’s film may not provide you with that but if you’ve got at least a reasonably well-developed misanthropic streak you should be well-entertained.

FYI: If you enjoyed this film then you should check out Colour Me Kubrick (2005) in which John Malkovich plays Alan Conway, a shyster who with surprising ease managed to trick people into believing that he was Stanley Kubrick.  




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