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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) tells the engaging and entertaining true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a celebrity biographer who struggles to regain success and relevance, seemingly at whatever cost, while desperately attempting to avoid acknowledging or changing who she is.
The film focuses on a period of Lee’s life in the 1990s, following her previous success as a celebrity biographer, when she is scrambling to find a project that her agent can get behind. After much disappointment and rejection, Israel realizes she has a knack for forging celebrity correspondence. When she has some success selling these forgeries to local booksellers, she decides to make a legitimate go of the criminal enterprise, enlisting the help of a newfound friend she met at the bar, Jack (Richard E. Grant). From here, there are many ups and downs, all leading to an inescapable reckoning for Israel.
The movie showcases two exceptional performances from McCarthy and Grant. McCarthy draws on her comedic chops, bringing front and center those aspects of Israel’s personality that are just so pronounced as to be humorous. At the same time, she shows great range in this dramatic role, presenting a believable and authentic character. Richard E. Grant is delightful as the street smart, reckless scoundrel you can’t help but love. He is a great sidekick to McCarthy’s Israel, and there is never more energy on the screen than when the two actors trade lines.
Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) does a great job of evoking the story’s setting, New York City. The varied sets – dank, cluttered book shops, worn in local bars, and abundant street scenes – all fix you properly in the big city. Aiding this is the soundtrack, an appropriate mix of percussive jazz, and tastefully employed popular songs, giving the film momentum and pause at just the right moments.
Despite its focus on a seemingly singular subject matter (the criminal misadventures of a failing writer in early 1990s NYC), we can all identify with at least some aspects of the film’s story. In particular, the journey of Israel’s character shows us a great example of the redemptive power of being honest with yourself.
At the outset of the film, we are introduced to Israel as a stubborn woman who is generally unhappy, and who experiences the people around her as a burden. We watch her continually run into barriers and stumbling blocks of her own design – losing a job after a conflict she initiates, complaining of a bug problem that arose through her hoarding/unsanitary habits, failing at romance because she refuses to let others into her life, etc. Israel’s inability to see the reality of herself and situation ultimately allows her to go so far down the rabbit hole of her criminal side business (with the goal of proving everyone wrong, presumably), that it takes an FBI investigation to turn the whole thing around.
Even then, Israel’s reckoning does not involve her completely changing who she is at a core level (nor would we want her to). At the end of the film, after everything that has transpired, we watch Israel, incorrigible as ever, joke that she wants to trip her now dying friend, Jack, as he hobbles out of the bar. But by this point, Israel has reached a place where she is seeing herself more clearly, and is starting to find the patience and ability to make concessions for the needs and wants of others. And that in itself is no small thing.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is well worth the price of admission. It’s a great dark comedy, with true laughs and drama throughout. It’s an interesting slice of life story that brings a particular time and particular woman into focus. It’s a showcase for two talented actors who have great chemistry in these roles. And it’s an illustrative character arc that we can all identify with in our own way. Be sure to watch Can You Ever Forgive Me?, now playing at Red River Theaters in downtown Concord, NH.