A film review by Craig J. Koban January 12, 2019

RANK:  #18


2018, R, 107 mins.


Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel  /  Richard E. Grant as Jack  /  Marc Evan Jackson as Llyod  /  Joanna Adler as Arlene  /  Ben Falcone as Alan Schmidt

Directed by Marielle Heller  /  Written by Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener




I've spent the better part of the last decade coming down hard on Melissa McCarthy, an extremely talented actress that has done her career absolutely no favors by appearing in one witless and puerile comedy after another, like THE BOSS, TAMMY, IDENTITY THIEF , and LIFE OF THE PARTYMost of my reviews of those films have one commonality in wishing that she strayed as far away from the stale and overused conventions of these films and the characters that she played so she can instead embark on something audaciously fresh and novel.  

In short, I wanted McCarthy to abandon Melissa McCarthy-ian comfort zones and formulas and fully realize her vast potential. 

The new fact based drama CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? seems like the proverbial answer to my long gestating prayers.  The Marielle Heller directed effort is based on the 2008 memoir of the same name by Lee Israel, who was an American author, magazine article writer, and copy editor that had her professional reputation destroyed forever when she began forging letters from prominent and diseased literary icons and then sold them for quick cash while she was at financial rock bottom in the early 1990's.  Her crimes even led to her stealing actual letters, creating forged copies, and then selling the real ones and returning the forged ones to libraries (you have to give her credit for audacity and creativity).  Her crimes caught up with her, and in 1993 the feds caught up with her, leading to a guilty plea and a sentence of six months of house arrest and five years of federal probation.  She was also forever barred from archives and libraries, meaning her career was all but over.  

Her memoir - and this film - is a chronicle of her crimes. 



McCarthy, of course, is cast as Israel, which probably represents one of the finest marriages of actress and part that I've seen in 2018, not to mention the fact that McCarthy is absolutely sensational in evoking an easily detestable woman that spat on her very profession, but somehow is able to make her paradoxically endearing and oddly sympathetic.  As we meet pre-criminal Lee she's a lonely, single, deeply bitter, and struggling writer that once made a modest career out of penning celebrity biographies, but her chronic alcoholism and perpetual mean spirited disposition has blacklisted her from just about everyone in the field.  We get an insight into her self-damaging personality when she attends a party thrown by her semi-estranged agent (a wonderful Jane Curtain), during which time she goes out of her way to alienate herself from just about everyone in attendance.  Hell, she even openly mocks Tom Clancy, who's also there, as another pompous windbag white man that writes trash.  

With no job, a sick cat back home, and mounting bills, Lee hits peak desperation mode.  While researching a book on Fanny Brice she finds two letters in the book written by the author herself.  She then peddles them for some easy money at a local bookstore run by Anna (one of the few people that takes a liking to Lee, played by Dolly Wells).  A light bulb then flashes above Lee's head: She commits herself to crafting meticulously written and produced forgeries of celebrated authors' writing styles in personal letters and then sells them to various book merchants across New York.  She learns that the market price for letters goes up if the content is juicy, so she decides to pepper up her new forgeries with some creative embellishment.  Within no time, Lee's making good money and is finally supporting herself and nursing her feline back home to health, and she's befriended along the way by Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay Brit that has more charm than Lee, which she realizes and then uses to help her sell forgeries to harder to crack dealers.  Unfortunately and rather predictably, Lee's federal crimes eventually, as already mentioned, catch up with her.   

On paper, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? is, to be fair, so ludicrous that it would have to be based on a true story in order for it to be believed.  The film matches its truly inspired and bonkers story with a portrait of New York of thirty years ago that simply doesn't get much attention or love in contemporary cinema anymore.  Heller does not create a vision of The Big Apple of the past that feels warm, inviting, and dreamlike, but rather as somewhat old, run down, and grungy, which perfectly compliments the downtrodden nature of the film's main character.  That's not to say that this iteration of New York isn't glamorous in wide shots (how could any film fail at that), but once Heller's camera hones in and focuses on the shabby and run down apartment complexes that Lee lives in and the cluttered and claustrophobic businesses that she frequents that contrasts the sleek skyscrapers above and beyond, you gain an impression of the city as one of simultaneous possibilities and hopelessness.   

More than anything, though, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? is a joyous performance showpiece for the wonderfully assembled tandem of McCarthy and Grant, whom together on screen make for a delightfully inspired and underhanded odd couple of crooks.  When they meet regularly for drinks you feel that all of their conversations - many of which include foul mouthed verbal jabs being hurled - have an organic, lived-in quality about them.  They feel like real drifters that have had life spit on them, allowing for them to come together to hatch their schemes on unsuspecting book store owners.  Still, Lee and Jack are not criminal masterminds: Both make some cardinal blunders along the way and have a fair amount of misguided trust in the other (Lee's naive reliance on Jack builds towards a positively heartbreaking moment late in the film), but both of these poor and delusional souls somehow always seem drawn together, even when it appears that (a) they should never be together and (b) they'll probably never get away indefinitely with their crimes. 

By the way, how superb is it to see Grant given an opportunity again to really sink his teeth into a role that feels finely tailored for his unique skill set?  This chronic boozer and barfly - who's proud to admit that he's essentially slept his way through most of the homosexual community of New York - makes for an effective foil against the rougher around the edges and mad as hell Lee.  Grant doesn't make this character the obligatory gay comic relief, though, seeing as he imbues in Jack a spirited tomfoolery alongside a wounded melancholy.  Then, of course, we have McCarthy at the absolute zenith of her powers as both an on-screen funny lady and gifted dramatic performer, who does the impossible by authentically inhabiting this furiously cranky woman that should be, by all accounts, toxically hateful, but she somehow finds a manner of humanizing her so that she doesn't become a curmudgeonly cartoon character.  Lee may be, for the most part, an insufferable bitch, but McCarthy also shows her internalized vulnerable side that her volcanic facade often masks.  McCarthy has taken so many pathetic paycheck parts in aforementioned comedies for years, but here she cements herself by giving one of finest performances of the year. 

CAN YOU FORGIVE ME? is oh-so-close to achieving lasting greatness, but falls a tad short, in particular the manner that the film feels weirdly reticent to dial into Lee's own somewhat closeted homosexuality over the course of the film, which seems befuddling considering that Jack's gayness is openly shown as a vital part of his character.  There's a hint of a romance between her and Dolly Wells' mousy book store owner (she's quietly strong in the film too), but this subplot is only sketchily developed and doesn't have much payoff.  Still, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? can be forgiven for such small creative missteps, seeing as it's a triumphant coming out party for McCarthy's far too frequently under-utilized talents, and it serves as a reminder of how potent she can be when given just the right material to work with.  I'm guilty as charged for perpetuating the shame train, so to speak, for McCarthy for such a long time, but let me be the first to get on board the hype train.  

She's that good here.  Keep that train a chuggin', Melissa. 

  H O M E