Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Can You Ever Forgive Me?



Marielle Heller


Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty


1h 46m


Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella, Christian Navarro, Pun Bandhu, Erik LaRay Harvey

MPAA Rating

R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use

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While cinema has often depicted writers as intellectuals and neurotics, which is based on a modicum of truth, Can You Ever Forgive Me? gives us a glimpse at a writer who embodies those traits, but whose inability to relate to those around her and to avoid self-defeat make for a compelling seriocomedy.

Melissa McCarthy plays celebrity biographer Lee Israel as she reaches the nadir of her career. Frumpily moving about her daily life, unable to pay her rent or take care of her cat, Israel’s depression worsens until she happens upon an old letter that she attempts to sell to a local bookshop where she’s offered a pittance. She soon discovers that the more intimate the writing, the more likely it is to fetch a higher price. Embarking on a quest to defraud various booksellers with faked letters and forged signatures, Israel builds a profitable life for her and the gay fop (Richard E. Grant) who waltzes into her life at its lowest point. She’s abrasive, snide, condescending, and intolerant. Her antisocial behavior inhibits her ability to convince others that she’s worthy of their time or money.

McCarthy has embraced the subtle transformation of her own character into making Israel both a brash antagonist and a sympathetic figure. The audience finds itself rooting for this misanthropic loser and even as her house of cards begins to tumble, it cheers her on even when the extent of her self-destructive ways begin to take hold. It’s a clear testament to her performance that a character as unlikable as Lee Israel could ultimately come off as someone utterly relatable.

The same could be said for her co-star Grant as Jack, a flamboyant gay man whose internal insecurities are hidden behind bravado, daring, and sexual promiscuity. While it’s not a character some viewers will be able to understand and relate with, for gay men of a certain age, the personality is all too easily identifiable.

Grant’s is a supporting performance in every sense of the word, never getting under foot, always leaving at just the right moment, and helping soften the character McCarthy is playing. His dispassionate view of society, intense interest in recreational drugs, and aggressive sociability make the pair a comparable match.

Israel’s crime spree forging celebrity letters was noteworthy and her autobiography digs into the depths of her own malfeasance and forms the basis for the film. While the details of Can You Ever Forgive Me? don’t follow the story with complete accuracy, screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty do a tremendous job crafting a narrative that explores this flawed woman.

McCarthy’s intimate look into a downward spiral of depression is exemplified in director Marielle Heller’s perfectly paced opening sequence where one unfortunate event after another befalls her, intensifying the audience’s empathy for the character. McCarthy is every part of that and her curmudgeonly antisocial personality is expertly infused there and in every subsequent moment.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a fiery and succinct look at Lee Israel’s life finding pathos, joy, and remorse in a tidy, compelling package.

Review Written

March 7, 2019

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