Melissa McCarthy shifts gears with a dramatic turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the true story of celebrity biographer Lee Israel, who after decades of success writing best-selling books about the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Estee Lauder, and Tallulah Bankhead, found herself in a desperate dry spell in the early ’90s. She turned to forgery to make ends meet, selling fake private letters allegedly written by literary luminaries. But eventually the FBI caught up with her. She ended up writing about her criminal behavior and the film is based on the book of the same title.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, like it’s central character, is hard to love. The casting of Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel makes the film far more palatable than it might have been otherwise. McCarthy has a long history of comedic work, and that baggage helps us identify and sympathize with Israel, who is otherwise a shut-in woman who keeps everyone, even lovers, at arm’s length. Her only unfettered love is for her cat. So for a long while, I watched the movie wondering why I should be spending time with this miserable woman in her miserable setting while she sews the seeds of her own destruction.
The film shows her reach for catharsis near the end, learning to grow some guts and write about herself instead other people for a change. She warms to both a female book store manager and a gay partner-in-crime played with panache by Richard E. Grant. The film’s best moments are between McCarthy and Grant, and also when Israel makes a statement just prior to her sentencing. Outside of those moments, I have to be honest. I had a hard time connecting with this movie. And a lot of it is just me: I hate New York. I hate characters that do dumb, self-destructive shit. And I even hate cats.
But I do like stories about people trying to make sincere human connections, and the final act gave me some of that. I also dug seeing the amazing and underappreciated Jane Curtin in a movie again, playing Israel’s tough-love agent.
Oscar Nominations: Best Actress (McCarthy), Best Supporting Actor (Grant), Best Adapted Screenplay