Imust admit that the style of comedy epitomised by Melissa McCarthy in films such as Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters and The Heat doesn’t much appeal to me, so I approached her starring role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? with some trepidation. I’m happy to say she’s magnificent in the film, which is based on the autobiographical book of the same name by Lee Israel, a struggling writer who attempted to support her modest lifestyle by undertaking some unusual criminal activity. Co-scripted by Nicole Holofcener, a fine director in her own right, and directed by Marielle Heller, an actress turned director whose The Diary of a Teenage Girl a few years ago was a little gem, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a touching and tender comedy drama.
It unfolds in New York in 1991. Israel (McCarthy), who lives alone in a small apartment with only her beloved cat for company, once made a living from writing biographies of celebrities. She has found some success with her books on Broadway diva Tallulah Bankhead and Estee Lauder, but no publisher seems eager to acquire her latest effort, a book about legendary vaudeville star Fanny Brice, despite the fact Barbra Streisand had immortalised Brice in two successful movies, Funny Girl (1968) and Funny Lady (1975).
Her attempts to find “regular” work are compromised by her “difficult” attitude and her propensity for profanity. She owes money to her vet, among others, and she spends her time at home alone, watching old movies on TV (she knows every line of the Bette Davis classic The Little Foxes).
Israel becomes desperate enough to start selling her belongings, mostly books, but there’s not much joy in that either — until, among her Brice research, she comes across a couple of letters written by the diva herself. These, she discovers, are valuable. There are people who collect such things and are willing to pay good money for them. This gives Israel the idea of forging letters supposedly written by celebrities such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward.
It’s not that hard to do, because she is able to copy a printed letterhead, acquire the same sort of typewriter once used by Parker and Coward, emulate the style of those world-famous wits — she particularly enjoys this part of it — and then fake a signature. For a while she gets away with it (“I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”).
Her partner in crime is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant in his best performance for years), a dissolute bon vivant and alcoholic whose charm is definitely fading but whose enthusiasm and encouragement are persuasive — until, that is, Israel reluctantly allows him to stay in her Can You Ever Forgive Me? Wide national release Climax (MA15+) Limited release Climax
Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?; below, a scene from