With a double header of Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominations at the upcoming BAFTAs and Oscars, Can You Ever Forgive Me? features a wonderful against-type Melissa McCarthy and a never better Richard E. Grant, thick as thieves in their shady dealings of forged celebrity correspondence.
Based on Israel’s 2008 memoir, Marielle Heller (Transparent) directs this hilarious caper following celebrity biographer Israel as she struggles for money and to fit into the sneery literary world of New York City. In financial dire straits, she sells her prized letter of thanks from Katherine Hepburn, to which she is surprised of the value. Being a shrewd woman, Israel finds this very convenient and after being encouraged by fellow art world misfit Jack Hock (Grant), begins to manufacture letters from literary giants and celebs as a means of income.
As a duo, McCarthy and Grant are just joyous to watch as they fall in and out of bars and bookshops, leaving a trail of fire behind them. Hock is a serial wanderer, enjoying all of the sin of NYC and Grant is a true raconteur, lighting up every room he enters with flair and charm. Though the world is doubtless to her comedic talent and Melissa McCarthy’s dry wit is an important part of the character, it is the scenes as a lonely and flawed woman that are winning such acclaim. Israel and Hock are both single and homosexual but it is their abrasive personalities that keep them out of relationships, their sexualities (rightly so) an aside, forming a platonic relationship with an unplanned fireworks show every other scene.
When comic actors take a dramatic turn we often find their best work (see Stranger Than Fiction, Punk Drunk Love) and in the case of Can You Ever Forgive Me? we can certainly forgive McCarthy for her last film – producer and star of the critically panned box office bomb The Happytime Murders, earning her a Razzie nomination for Worst Actress which in an ironic twist, may prevail in tandem with Best Actress later this month. Thankfully, this is her best work yet – not abandoning her comic roots but building on them – great casting from Jennifer Euston who is one of the go-to casting directors in television right now.
Appropriately for a film about the written word, it is ultimately the script that has been so key to its success. Full of wit, co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q) the screenplay is the perfect vehicle for the cast to shine against the anonymous backdrops of bookstores, bars, diners and Israel’s dingy apartment. Up for Best Adapted Screenplay and at a lean 1 hour 45 minutes, there is no fat to be found either. It is high praise to say I am unsure how this film could be much bettered while still keeping the same tone. Unconventionally there is also no centrepiece scene or particularly thematic score to carry the film – Can You Ever Forgive Me? sets out exactly what it aimed to do, safely having bet all chips on its strong cast performing well.
Israel was a bit of a black sheep but is neither painted as a hero or a villain as Hollywood would usually dictate, so praise is due for not grossly exaggerating or mis-telling her story for the sake of selling movie tickets. Jazz aptly forms the soundtrack to her very spontaneous exploits, with old records providing background noise to her meticulous forging sessions. It’s a little anachronistic but it suits the film well, which, by broadly avoiding anything too time specific, has an older feel than the actual time period (early 1990s) would suggest. Heller also doesn’t push the boat out visually but she really doesn’t need to – there is enough on offer to enjoy from McCarthy and Grant, whose chemistry is authentic as could be and the anchor to which the film is tied.