Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me? - Review

On its surface, Can You Ever Forgive Me? does not sound like a winner. A story of a curmudgeon writer struggling to make ends meet and the crimes she commits is hardly a story that the masses yearn to see. However, the filmmakers and actors behind the film craft something that requires everyone’s attention, and will likely gain it with heaps and heaps of awards that will inevitably come its way. 

Celebrity biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) makes her living profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee is no longer able to get published because she has fallen out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack (Richard E. Grant).

Lee Israel is not a likable character. Though far from outright bad, her motivations certainly tip her towards anti-heroine than anything else, and that makes the accomplishments of director Marielle Heller and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty all the more remarkable.

As far as direction goes, Heller’s touch is not flashy in any sense of the word. Instead, she creates a showcase, a vessel to highlight both the writing and the performances that give life to this biopic that could’ve easily gone south. There aren’t any marvelous feats or sweeping camera movements, but it is sound and precise, exactly what the film needed.

On the other side is a tremendous screenplay from Holofcener and Whitty. Full of wit and subtle moments of dark comedy (and others not so subtle), Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the ideal balance of melancholy and carefree for a New York story about a writer selling counterfeit literary letters. And yet as un-cinematic as that simplified synopsis may read, the film is entirely enjoyable and incredible affecting from start to finish.

Part of the inherent lovability of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the two award worthy performances at the forefront from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. McCarthy is her usual funny self, not in the type-cast manner that’s plagued her career for years now, but actually funny, nailing the dry and piercing humor that the script requires. This is a film that serves as a reminder of what McCarthy can pull off when a project worthy of her talents comes along. 

Her equally as talented co-star will likely make a lot of noise this awards season as well. As an end of line, dim witted and largely charming character, Richard E. Grant gets a ton of material to chew on, and he clearly savors every minute of it. The interactions between the two and their biting words are among some of the best scenes of the year, and it’ll likely keep both of them in conversation as the award nominations start coming in.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a buddy comedy, a crime drama, and a portrait of loneliness all wrapped up in one. There is awards caliber work put in from nearly top to bottom but particularly for the direction, writing, and performances. McCarthy and Grant are both at the top of their games here, with the former delivering maybe her best performance to date. Can You Ever Forgive Me? doesn’t forgive the crimes of Lee Israel, but it does deliver on something far greater: empathy. 

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