(2018—Director: Marielle Heller)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
Potential spoilers below
Money—or, more specifically, the lack of it—tends to twist the lives of many. It is common to observe this phenomenon among the impoverished. It also fascinates to observe this in those who have tasted fame and yearn to relish it once more. One such example is Lee Israel, who passed away in 2014 after having profiled the lives of female celebrities during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Notoriety, however, does not reside with the late Ms. Israel for her death, nor for the legitimate early prime of her adult career. Instead, Ms. Israel made her name in the early 1990s forging more than 400 correspondences from deceased writers, playwrights, and actors.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, directed by Marielle Heller from a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (adapting Israel’s 2008 confessional autobiography), covers that 1991-92 criminal adventure of Israel’s life. This stew of biographical drama and tragedy, sprinkled with comedic touches, a detached toleration of same-sex romantic flings, and an indifferent view on Ms. Israel’s actions will not satisfy everyone. Those intrigued will find, under the no-nonsense direction of Ms. Heller, worthwhile and steady performances by a modest Melissa McCarthy and a lively Richard E. Grant.
In our modern age with a show like the History Channel’s Pawn Stars firmly in the “meme” stage, it is easy to forget the recent necessity for authentication with regards to collector’s items. Offering a peek at that transition and one key incident that facilitated it serves as perhaps the sneakiest asset of Can You Ever Forgive Me? Holofcener and Whitty further highlight it by having McCarthy and Grant question even the authority of authenticators, leading to one of cinema in 2018’s more humorous finales. That said, the forging montages make Israel’s newfound career path appear far easier than it did. It would have helped if the filmmakers had dwelled a bit more on the complex science and routine of Israel’s forgery that not only sparked her writing talents, but also helped her evade the authorities for as long as she did.
At its inception, the makers behind Can You Ever Forgive Me? had hoped to cast Julianne Moore and Chris O’Dowd as Lee Israel and (likely) Jack Hock, respectively. Such choices might have worked to get the film greenlit, but McCarthy and Grant come off as the more natural fits for the characters. As with 2015’s Spy, Melissa McCarthy tempers her improvisational vulgar rambling. She paints Lee Israel as a writer who has tasted fame yet whose intolerable attitude has driven away further success, female companions, and people in general. Her appearance here almost makes me forget that she starred just months earlier in the horrendous Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders. (Side note: The Happytime Murders wishes it were Peter Jackson’s 1989 black comedy Meet the Feebles.) Meanwhile, I prefer Richard E. Grant in roles like Jack Hock, a chipper yet aging, drug-dealing gay prostitute-for-lodging and perhaps Lee’s only friend, rather than as bland villains like Dr. Zander Rice in last year’s Logan. Both McCarthy and Grant’s turns have popped up in recent Oscar conversations and they would serve as welcome nominees for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor awards, respectively. I will admit, though, that I will not miss them should they fall short of making the cut.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? will go down as yet another quiet gem from cinema in 2018. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant have lent their talents well in providing the definitive dramatization of this odd episode in recent literary world history. If for nothing else, audiences should take to heart the lessons of this curious episode—to exercise caution in how they obtain their means of living and that crime, however adventurous it can get, never truly pays.
(Parental Note: Can You Ever Forgive Me? has been rated R by the MPAA “for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “very strong language” and “drug misuse”.)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.