You probably wouldn’t want to spend much actual time with the central pair in Can You Ever Forgive Me? But if you happened to sit next to them in a bar – they are very frequently in bars – you’d eavesdrop on every barbed word of their conversation. They are mean, selfish and absolutely hilarious.
The film is adapted from a book of the same name by Lee Israel, detailing her experiences as forger of celebrity letters. It’s a pleasingly minor, bourgeois grift and the story has an appropriately shabby, low-stakes mood to suit this particular crime story. Lee, played by Melissa McCarthy, falls into this life of deceit by accident and necessity. Lee is an author, mostly of celebrity biographies.
Her work doesn’t sell and, unsurprisingly, nobody will give Lee an advance on her next book. Lee is proud and mean, so refuses to accept that she needs to change, insisting the world recognise her greatness. She finds both an outlet for her creativity and a way to make fast cash when she fakes a letter by old-timey Broadway star Fanny Brice and sells it to a collector. She forges more letters – by Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and other wits – and starts making a fortune. Everyone believes they’re real because Lee is a brilliant writer, as long as she’s pretending to be someone else. As her ego pushes her to create more arresting letters, the FBI gets wind of her scam.
Helping Lee in her new life is Jack (Richard E. Grant), a foppish old drunk who pretends he lives the high life but is actually homeless. Their stuttering friendship is the film’s core and a rock solid one. Given dialogue that’s bitchy with just a smidge of affection, both leads devour it. You can see the fun they’re having and it radiates off the screen. McCarthy’s role has been sold as her ‘doing serious’, which isn’t quite accurate. She plays Lee’s begrudging crawl toward self-realisation completely truthfully, but she’s wringing it for all its comedy. It’s just a fantastic performance, regardless of how you choose to categorise it. Grant’s turn is almost purely comic, until one late moment, which has very few words, that is absolutely devastating.
Director Marielle Heller (The Diary Of A Teenage Girl) keeps a low-key look throughout. The whole film is set in New York, but she almost never looks up at the grandeur. She’s inside, in shadows, or underground with two people who live without ever really being noticed by anyone but each other. There’s nowhere else you’d want to go when there’s the option of sticking with them.
- Release date: February 1, 2019