Note: This is a re-post of our Can You Ever Forgive Me? review from the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival. The movie is now playing in select theaters.
Melissa McCarthy is an established, Oscar-nominated comedic talent, and while she’s shown the promise of her dramatic work here and there over the last few years, she finally gets the dramatic role she deserves in Can You Ever Forgive Me? The real-life drama is a melancholic portrait of a sad, lonely, middle-aged woman who wonders if the best years of her life are far behind her. McCarthy imbues the performance with a twinkle of mischief, but mostly a heavy heart, and the result is a moving portrait of a complicated woman.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the memoir of the same name by Lee Israel, who came to prominence in the 60s, 70s, and 80s as a biographer, but who found it difficult to get her work published in the early 90s. Struggling to make ends meet, she stumbles upon the idea of using her writing talent to forge letters written by famous authors like Dorothy Parker, then sell them as memorabilia to book shops around Manhattan. But as her gambit grows larger, she finds herself drawing the ire of the law.
The forgeries are the main focus of the film’s plot, but the heart of the film is Lee’s relationship with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an older gay man she meets in a bar (in the afternoon, of course) who quickly becomes her drinking buddy. Jack is full of vigor and confidence, but the façade hides his own sad, lonely soul—which is why he and Lee become so close. It’s clear in the film that Lee doesn’t have many, if any, friends, and her only treasured relationship is the one she has with her aging cat. She lets Jack in on her forgery secret, and together the two have the time of their lives.
This is Diary of a Teenage Girl filmmaker Marielle Heller’s second directorial feature, and she proves she’s got a serious talent for character-driven stories. The casting in this film is terrific, chock full of talented actresses over the age of 40 who we see far too little of in this day and age. Heller directs the hell out of each and every performance, while also balancing a tone that walks the line between fun romp and heartbreaking tragedy.
The script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty is tender and warm, and while the film gets a bit too enamored of the forgeries as it wears on, it’s mostly a joy to watch. McCarthy’s performance is absolutely stellar, and she delivers the best work of her career thus far with a complicated character. However, as the forgeries start to take hold, you do leave the film wishing it had spent a little more time with Lee’s internal life.
That said, this movie is still charming as hell. Cinematographer Brandon Trost soaks each frame with a sense of warmth that makes each scene inviting during the New York winter, even when Lee can get a bit prickly. It reveals a vision of 1990s Manhattan that’s cozy yet alienating at the same time, and Trost brings his signature flair for unique lighting setups to this particular story in gorgeous fashion. Nate Heller’s jazz-infused score, meanwhile, is an absolute delight. This is only his second feature film as a composer, but he’s already established himself as a fresh talent to watch.
And then there’s Grant, who has made himself a consistently joyous performer throughout his career, but who really gets to dig deep into various emotional shades with the character of Jack. It’s a tremendous performance that goes hand in hand with McCarthy’s cautious take on Lee, and the scenes featuring these two characters together are dynamite. Heller doesn’t settle for simply letting Jack be the charismatic friend—she gives room for the character to breathe, which makes all the difference. He’s the life of every party on the surface, but a damaged, lonely individual on the inside.
Lee’s exploits grow a bit frustrating as the movie wears on, and indeed it’s a deceivingly difficult role to play. If Lee had swallowed her pride and been willing to change a bit she may have found success on her own, but instead she opted to live life on her own terms—knowing full well that she was being stubborn. The irony, of course, is that Lee was famous for making her authorial voice disappear in her biographies, but it was through the letter writing here that she found her own creative outlet.
McCarthy fully disappears into this role, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? is ultimately a tremendously empathetic film about sadness and loneliness at middle age. That it’s the story of a complicated woman instead of a man—told by a female director—makes it that much more refreshing and engaging, but no less relatable. The specifics of Lee’s story may be unique, but the emotions at the heart of the matter are universal. Heller gets that, and with Can You Ever Forgive Me? crafts a loving portrait of complicated people.