Growing up watching Gilmore Girls, I never thought for a second that there would come a day when I would venture in to a movie theatre to watch a film for which Melissa McCarthy has a Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Not that this is her first nod, of course. From Best Supporting Actress praise for Bridesmaids to this much more dramatic leading turn in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it’s fair to say that McCarthy has broken from the confines of her natural comedic comfort zone and is now a fully fledged player in the game.
Set in the early 1990s, the film tells the true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a once acclaimed biographer who, after falling on desperate financial times, embarks on a campaign of authoring and selling fake letters by some of the literary world’s most revered and beloved writers. With the help of friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a flamboyant small time drug dealer, Israel begins to make money and improve her life circumstances, but it isn’t long before the FBI catch up to her, with potentially serious legal ramifications.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a very interesting, very sharp and darkly witty film, but it is also a very sad and tragic one, I guess melancholy is the perfect blanket description. Though the narrative contains a fun, at times tense, at times exhilarating journey of white-collar style crime, there are some really strong and tragic underlying themes of alcoholism, homelessness, lost love and sexuality, and even the presence of the AIDs crisis in New York at the time. Looking at that list, it strikes me that the film actually does a lot more with its brisk one hour and forty seven minute running time than it feels on first glance, an impressive feat for a picture that, whilst melancholy, also manages to feel effortlessly light at the same time.
Lee takes pride in her work, in her ability to match the masterful craft of the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, but there is an underlying sadness in the fact that her writing under her own name is nowhere near as respected or acclaimed as her forgeries. The film has a lot to say about creative satisfaction and the unjust nature of celebrity trumping talent, a funny jibe at the contemporary fame of Tom Clancy helping to illustrate that particular point. At its heart, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a buddy caper, albeit with a different kind of vibe from the usual examples of the genre. There are no big heist scenes, there are no climactic shoot outs, but rather a really grounded, authentic feeling account of an exciting criminal interlude in an otherwise mundane and ultimately sad life story. It is this mixture of excitement and sadness that makes it a really endearing watch.
She may not be among the front runners in the category, best Melissa McCarthy is well worth her Oscar nomination for Best Actress. McCarthy gives a painfully repressed and guarded performance as Lee Israel, a woman who didn’t seem to be easy to know or to love, but who also had a capacity for both, something we see in the brief glimpses of her love for her pet, her both parts heart warming and heart breaking attempts at romance, and in her fragile but meaningful friendship with Jack Hock. The character could so easily have fallen in to the irretrievable depths of the ‘old lesbian cat lady’ stereotype, but there is something in McCarthy’s embodiment that makes her a much more rounded, complicated, layered presence than that. You can really see how the actress’s comedy background helps to give Lee that slight spark, but don’t disregard her dramatic talents either, she breaks your heart on several occasions.
As partner in crime Jack Hock, Richard E. Grant has himself grabbed a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Grant is enigmatic, engaging, infuriating, loveable, unlikable, all those contradictory characteristics that come together to symbolise that one friend we all have who simultaneously brings out the best and worst in us. I can’t say that he particular stretches himself in the way the McCarthy does, but that doesn’t mean he excels and perfectly executes what is required of him. Together, the pair share an authentic chemistry, once again bringing things back to that key word melancholy. You feel that they do have a genuine affection for one another, but that their connection also stems from a severe lack of companionship from any other sources. It’s one of those instances where it is just a pleasure to watch two great performers, perform greatly together!
Overall, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a sad, touching drama with a dark comedy edge, one that tells a really interesting story about a part of the literary world you probably haven’t been exposed to before. I’m excited to see what kind of avenues this opens for Melissa McCarthy, her true dramatic talent is here for all to see, and hopefully many more opportunities in that area come her way.