“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells us an amusing real-life crime story of Lee Israel, a washed-out biographer who resorted to forging letters of a number of famous figures when she happened to hit the bottom of her life and career during the early 1990s. Never overlooking how pathetic and unlikable its antisocial heroine is, the movie constantly tickles us as drolly depicting how far she went for her criminal writing career, and we come to observe her quick rise and fall with some sympathy and understanding.
The early part of the movie shows us how life has been difficult and desperate for Israel (Melissa McCarthy). Although there was once a time when she was a fairly successful biographer, she is almost penniless now with no bright prospect for her writing career, and she has just lost her current job due to her serious drinking problem. While she has tried to write a new biography on Fanny Brice, she has been struggling with writer’s block, and her agent does not show any interest on that biography at all mainly because she has been pretty sick of Israel not having made any attempt to make herself look more social and presentable in contrast to a certain popular writer, who has just received a considerable amount of advance for his next novel.
As Israel nurses her anger and resentment in local bars, things get worse for her than before. Her apartment somehow begins to smell pretty bad with lots of flies, but the maintenance man of the apartment building only reminds her that she has already been behind three months in paying her rent. In addition, her dear old pet cat gets very sick, so she must find any possible way to get money as soon as possible.
After her unsuccessful attempt to sell some of her old books, she decides to sell a few old letters from famous figures which have been stored by her for years, and then she comes to have a nice criminal idea. After forging one of these letters a bit and then selling it at a higher price, she goes further as forging letters of various famous figures ranging from Noël Coward to Dorothy Parker, and she soon gets enough money for not only her delayed rent but also her cat.
As she keeps going on in her criminal activity, the adapted screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, which is based on Israel’s memoir of the same name, cheerfully hops from one narrative point to another, and director Marielle Heller immerses us further into the authentic urban atmosphere of New York City during the 1990s. Below its tall, slick skyscrapers, we see a number of antique bookshops located here and there in the city, and you may feel a bit nostalgic if you are familiar with the city during that period.
In the end, Israel is eventually welcomed less by collectors after they become more cautious about her forged letters, so she enlists an acquaintance named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who is your average flamboyant aging gay dude. While Hock sells her forged letters outside, she focuses on forging more letters inside her apartment, and we later see her apartment filled with various old typewriters which will give her forged letters more authentic impression.
As they continue to work closely with each other, Israel and Hock become a bit friendlier with each other, and we observe how their contrasting personalities complement each other to some degree. While they still do not get along that well with each other mainly due to Israel’s antisocial tendency, they rely on each other mainly because both of them do not have anyone particularly close to them, and that is why they feel hurt a lot when their criminal activity comes to an inevitable end.
Around that narrative point, the movie loses a bit of its comic momentum, but it is still held well together by Melissa McCarthy, who was recently Oscar-nominated for her entertaining performance here in this movie. Dialing down her indomitable comic spirit in her dowdy appearance, McCarthy vividly presents an unpleasant but compelling human figure without making any cheap excuse, and the result is her finest work since her breakthrough turn in “Bridesmaid” (2011).
As McCarthy’s counterpoint, Richard E. Grant, a wonderful British character actor who has steadily entertained us since his memorable debut performance in cult classic film “Withnail & I” (1987), gives a rich, delicious performance which garnered him a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. He and McCarthy are always entertaining whenever their characters exchange barbed banters, and their last scene in the film is alternatively funny and touching thanks to their effortless interaction on the screen.
On the whole, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is another impressive work from Heller, who previously debuted with “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (2015). Because I admired how that interesting coming-of-age drama film handles well its rather sensitive subjects, I am naturally glad to see that she advances further with her next film, and I certainly appreciate how she deftly handles Holofcener and Whitty’s adapted screenplay while also drawing superb performances from McCarthy and Grant. Besides confirming her status as one of the most notable American filmmakers to watch, this is indeed one of the most enjoyable films of 2018, and you may watch antique letters with amusement and suspicion after watching it.