“Can You Ever Forgive Me,” based on the real-life memoirs of Lee Israel, is perhaps the most specific movie about the most specific crime imaginable, yet the overall result is a morality tale. Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a freelance biographer living in New York in the 90s, is unemployed and hoping for a chance to write her next big project: a biography about 1920s vaudeville star, Fanny Brice. However, no one takes her seriously, including her publisher, who won’t finance the project. So when she stumbles on an old letter from Brice herself in a dusty library book, Israel adds some “interesting” content and sells it. Then she starts writing her own “authentic” letters as famous authors (Noel Coward) and celebrities (Dorothy Parker), selling them to the highest bidders.
For such a specific and seemingly boring type of intellectual crime, “Can You Ever Forgive Me” is an extremely engaging movie thanks to a witty script performed by two terrific actors. Melissa McCarthy embodies the “crazy grumpy cat lady” stereotype perfectly but takes it a step further; she gives has an emotional core for us to latch onto. We all know a person as stubborn as Lee Israel. McCarthy is known to have brilliant comedic timing, and it comes out through snarky sarcasm here, especially when she’s paired with Richard E. Grant, who deserves every supporting actor nomination coming to him. Grant plays Jack Hock, a longtime friend of Israel who is unapologetically gay and lives life to the absolute fullest – with a touch of British class. From his first second onscreen, we know we’re in for a wild ride; Grant plays an outwardly funny character with an extremely complex core, being the perfect match to McCarthy’s irritable protagonist.
Can You Ever Forgive Me is therefore a film that hinges on this friendship; Israel and Hock’s relationship carries the film. It’s such an essential piece that when the two are apart, the movie tends to drag. On one hand, it’s a testament to their bond, but on the other, it makes things more boring than they seem. For example, a romantic spark between Israel and a bookseller named Anna (Dolly Wells) comes from an interesting angle, but amounts to a snooze-fest.
Despite its slow moments, the foundational themes are strong for this movie. Israel knows exactly how to play the celebrity worship/gossip crowd through her forged letters, and it’s a subtle dig at those today who follow celebrity culture religiously. Though Israel suffers the consequences of her actions eventually, this movie doubles as a warning to those who place the elite in high regard, unveiling both the truth and multiple facades surrounding their “favorites.” It’s an in-depth movie that’s light enough to be a comedy, but dark enough to become an awards favorite in the coming months.