Movie Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

There are varying opinions on Melissa McCarthy’s work, but few can argue only a stellar actress can make an unpleasant character someone with whom you’d like to spend more time. In “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, McCarthy plays a grumpy, frumpy, foul-mouthed misanthrope — while somehow maintaining a small semblance of the warmth we often associate with the comedy actress. Hugely sympathetic even at her worst, we can’t help but root for her, no matter how far down the rabbit hole of literary crime she falls.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” follows Lee Israel (McCarthy), a down-on-her-luck biographer who’s struggling to pay her rent and can’t afford the medical treatment needed by her sick cat. When she realizes there’s a rather lucrative market for letters written by prominent authors, she finds her finely honed writing skills being put to use forging and selling counterfeit letters from famous figures, mimicking the voice and style of the likes of Fanny Brice, Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and others. When she reconnects with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an old acquaintance who has a penchant for excess, they quickly become drinking buddies and partners in crime.

Lovingly directed by Marielle Heller with impeccable production design, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” captures the wistful and tragic world that Lee inhabits, from the quaint wood-paneled book stores, to the dim Manhattan bars where she liked to knock back round after round of scotch and soda. The classic jazz-infused soundtrack invokes the icons of the early 20th century that Lee so admired, mixing with the 1991 time period for a distinctly nostalgic vibe.

One of the biggest charms at work here is the relationship between Lee and Jack, which is simultaneously boisterous, toxic, and infectious. Grant is the flashy, dashing counterpart to McCarthy’s antisocial cat-lady. The liveliness of their interactions is in part what gives the first half of the movie the low-key fun of “Ocean’s Eleven”; we love seeing what they can get away with and who they can outsmart. At one point, Lee justifies her actions in a way that colors all of her bad behavior in a peculiar way. She says she considers her letters to be “literary treasures” — short, sweet, brilliant pieces of writing. From what we glimpse of the letters, she’s not wrong. But when Jack tries to make her see reason, she shoots back with a retort that’s both funny and absurd: “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!”

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is just as much about the stifling of a woman’s creativity and the yearning for praise from others as it is about a small-time con job, and that’s what sets it apart from all the other wheeling-and-dealing crime pics out there. It’s a tragicomic biopic of the highest order, with a marvelous performance from McCarthy at its center. McCarthy is so good, in fact, that you may seriously contemplate the possibility that she’s a better Lee Israel than Lee Israel.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is now playing in South Florida movie theaters. For showtimes, click here

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