In the 1990s, biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), frustrated with lack of interest in a mooted project about vaudeville legend Fanny Brice, and struggling with money and alcohol issues, began a spree of literary forgery that amounted to over 400 faked letters.
Melissa McCarthy has quietly been on a real bum streak of late (The Boss, Life of the Party, The Happytime Murders) so Can You Ever Forgive Me? really couldn’t come soon enough. Based on Israel’s bestselling memoir, it is clearly intended as awards bait for its star, but is also perfectly satisfying as a slow-burn crowd-pleaser that will fill the now near annual schlubby-writers-in-dingy-offices Best Picture slot (Spotlight, The Post).
McCarthy has found a useful collaborator in the form of Marielle Heller, whose previous film, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, uprooted the SNL-glamour of Kirsten Wiig to 1970s San Francisco. Heller understands the beats of comedy as well as drama – she’s even married to one of those Lonely Island guys, which one imagines would become exhausting before the end of the honeymoon – and it is clear from the very first scene of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in which Israel is fired from a copywriting job, that plenty of dark humour will be twisted into the narrative.
But while the film opens looking like a quiet, introspective picture about loneliness, professional dissatisfaction and alcoholism (and all these themes do flicker near its heart), those ideas are ultimately subordinated to something resembling a caper, filled with imaginary cousins, dead cats, library heists and Noël Coward’s signature. While the title hints at something more reflective, the narrative eventually reveals it to be a joke – a rather good one – that recurs with grim irony, but little contemplation.
Whenever an actor who has been pigeonholed into comedy ventures into more dramatic roles (though they are rarely quite as po-faced as the headlines would have you believe) there is a tendency to exaggerate the extent to which the performance is a revelation. McCarthy has always been an accomplished actor, wading into deeper comedic territory since the runaway success of Bridesmaids, but, prior to becoming the most bankable woman in Hollywood, she was never shy of film and TV roles that weren’t as broad as a flanker’s shoulders.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is no revelation in terms of her ability to draw warmth and humour from a character who is – and it’s crucial to the narrative – fundamentally unlikeable. She is an actor for whom pathos comes very naturally. It’s actually a performance of less subtly and restraint than you might imagine, though she is essentially in a two-hander with Richard E. Grant going full Richard E. Grant, and, as such, it feels much more stripped back than it might otherwise.
Led by McCarthy, the film is always watchable and, at times, both moving and funny, though it slips into mawkishness during a trial speech that’s only purpose could possibly be to provide a clip for the Academy Awards reel. Generally, however, the film is a well-intended and unselfconscious addition to the ‘comedy stars go serious’ genre.
The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October. whatson.bfi.org.uk/lff