In 2011, Melissa McCarthy hit the comedy movie scene in an unprecedented way with her breakout performance in Paul Feig’s “Bridesmaids.” As the loud-mouthed, upfront sister-of-the-groom bridesmaid, McCarthy was critically lauded and earned her first Oscar nomination, an award that rarely rewards a broadly comedic performance. This year, McCarthy is once again among awards season contender with her dramatic debut in the true-crime film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Set in the early 1990s, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the true story of Lee Israel (McCarthy), an alcoholic biographer of Hollywood stars and starlets who’s no longer able to get her books published because they do not align with public taste or interest. When she finds that she can make money selling celebrity-written letters, Lee embarks on a crime-spree of counterfeiting letters to make a living.
If nothing else, the film is a showcase for its performers, whose talents are on full display. McCarthy trades her standard zany, high-energy and generally optimistic character for the depressed, cranky and cynical Lee; she excels in every facet of the role. Whether she’s in a shouting match with her publisher about Tom Clancy or going on a date with a woman from whom she is stealing, McCarthy shines in the emotional situations she’s given. Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Lee’s mysterious and dopey acquaintance-turned-accomplice, is incredibly charming and charismatic, perfectly contrasting the depression Lee displays. The other bit players do a great job at coloring in the world and hold their own against the stars of the film. Even Lee’s cat gives an outstanding performance with little gestures and twitches that make it seem like the animal understands what her owner is talking to her about.
The script and dialogue are effective at analyzing and magnifying the eccentricities of the main characters. Lee’s evolution from a burnt-out writer to a wanted criminal is explained naturally and is easy to follow. The scenarios that Lee forces herself and Jack into are perfectly woven into the narrative, displaying what they are willing to do to survive. Lee and Jack’s repartee crackles with perfect sarcasm and pulls at the heartstrings with touching moments that peel back the facades these people put up for the world.
The musical choices of the film are serviceable for the grim, wintry New York City. Smooth jazz and practically no contemporary soundscapes situate the film nicely during the early ‘90s.
The film has very little style and visual inventiveness, though. Most scenes can be categorized as either two people sitting down talking, one person sitting behind a desk talking to someone standing and, on incredibly rare occasions, two people standing up and talking. Aside from one gripping scene, in which Lee attempts to steal a real antique letter from an archive, the editing and camerawork are equally as flat.
Unlike most films where one of the key selling points is its base in a true story, this story is simply not that thrilling. There is no tension surrounding Lee’s imminent capture, and when she is punished, Lee only receives what feels to be the equivalent of a limp slap on the wrist.
The film very mildly touches on the social importance of its setting. Both Jack and Lee deal with their places within the LGBTQ community, which became prominent in mainstream conversations during that time period, but this dimension appears tangential to the plot.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a perfect example of a film in which the characters are interesting, compelling and entertaining to watch, while the story leaves little impact.
Besides the top-notch performances and sharp writing, the film does not do enough to distinguish itself from the crop of the numerous based-on-a-true-story films that come out each year. If you’re looking for a true-story film about someone pretending to be someone else, filled with close calls, social commentary and tense scenes, just watch “BlacKkKlansman.”