Can You Ever Forgive Me? Movie Review: A Dynamic Showcase for Melissa McCarthy

It's a strong acting showcase, a biopic, and a cautionary tale all at once.
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After landing an Oscar nomination for her scene-stealing turn in Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy has managed to successfully parlay her awards success into comedic movie stardom. Well now, she gets to expertly show off her skills as a dramatic actress in the biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me?, delivering her best performance to date in the process. Granted, she has shown hints of her dramatic capabilities with St. Vincent and even Bridesmaids where she had the scene with the serious one-on-one talk with Kristen Wiig’s character. However, those were just indications of her range which is demonstrated in full force here.

In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a real-life biographer who resorted to forging letters written by famous writers in order to pay her rent and take care of her sick cat. She also does it with the help of her flamboyant comrade Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). Israel’s journey ends up not just being a portrait of her life but also, a rather vocal cautionary tale for many aspiring writers.

The film tells anyone who wants to be a writer that even if you have all the talent in the world, what the world really cares about it is who you know rather than what you know and how good you are. It is a harsh reality and hopefully, anyone looking to make it as a writer doesn’t feel deterred after watching this movie. But it’s still a piece of recommended viewing so that people don’t make similar mistakes as Lee Israel. Part of the reason she turned to forgery is because she burned bridges while she was still an unknown writer and refused to evolve her writing style.

However, the movie relievingly doesn’t vilify Israel for the crimes she committed. It’s clear what she did was criminal but about the first 30 minutes make us realize why she did what she did. She had to get her bills paid, she got fired from her job, and she wasn’t getting any help from her literary agent. Also, she wanted to maintain her traditional writing expertise and had to come up with a method to do so. 

Aside from the movie showcasing harsh truths about the writing world, adding to its melancholic tone is its demonstration of two people drawn together by their loneliness. Despite Lee and Jack Hock having slightly conflicting personalities, they still pair together because they really have nobody else to turn to. That being said, their dynamic is still absorbing to watch because of the chemistry between Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant who is a complete scene stealer. Sometimes, their banter will provide some laughs but other times, it becomes heartbreaking once we hear them discuss their lives of solitude. They also discuss what it’s like to be lonely queer people in NYC without the film ever politicizing their sexualities.

There’s no doubt that Melissa McCarthy is going to find herself back in the Oscar race. However, Richard E. Grant, who’s typically been an unsung character actor, should finally get his moment in the sun. He inhales every moment where he appears on screen, portraying his character with a delicate balance of exuberance and despair. It is a quintessential supporting performance.

Both McCarthy and Grant are the strong center of Can You Ever Forgive Me? which is a seriocomic meditation of loneliness, the struggle to make it as an artist, and gay friendship. All three themes are seamlessly rolled up into a dynamic package by director Marielle Heller. This is one that should not be missed.

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