McCarthy shines in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’


“I don’t think I’d find myself very interesting” is how Leonore Carol “Lee” Israel responds when a date of hers asks why she doesn’t write about herself. This exchange is wholeheartedly honest but rings tongue-in-cheek given that it is from a scene in a film based off Israel’s popular and acclaimed memoir titled “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

This film (which goes by the same name) details Israel’s struggles of being a woman in the world of writing and publishing (this as a result of her constant drinking, foul mouth and difficult behavior), her turning to a life of successful white collar crime in forgery of letters from world famous writers, and then her eventual indictment for those crimes. It’s a story not only full of rich potential for entertainment but also for a poignant and touching piece of works. 

IMAGE COURTESY OF IMDB Melissa McCarthy and Robert Grant star in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

Thankfully, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” lives up to that rich potential and it is all thanks to the impeccable work from the talent both in front and behind the camera. Marielle Heller follows up her whimsical and honest directorial debut “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” with a much more somber and confrontational piece of work here. It also helps that she is working with the clever and snappy script from Nicole Holofcener. Together these two navigate the smooth tonal shifts from dark comedy to human drama to tightly paced white collar thriller. It’s a tough feat to pull off but Heller and Holofcener make it look easy.

Melissa McCarthy becomes Lee Israel. Playing her as a foul destructive misanthrope pushed to the point of pure desperation in a crisis of identity. Israel’s loyal partner in crime is Jack Hock, a fellow pit of misery played with extreme charisma and flamboyance by Richard E. Grant. McCarthy and Grant have sizzling chemistry that commands the screen. Never has it been more fun and engaging to watch two dejected spirits commit serious crimes and find immense joy in each others misery.

IMAGE COURTESY OF IMDB Richard Grant and Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is about one woman’s means to survive in a harsh capitalist society but at its core it is a story of one woman’s discovery for self identity in her career through impersonating that of the writers she looked up to. The paradoxical nature of this concept is not lost on the film. In fact, it explores it with a great sense of depth and irony.

This reverts back to the earlier quote. Israel is someone who launched their career by penning biographies for such figures as Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder. But it isn’t until the moments depicted in this film that Lee understands her talent for storytelling and through pursuit of this criminal career, develops the intrigue of her life. It’s in the film’s climactic court scene that Heller really hammers this point home and has Lee admit that these were “the best times of her life.” Make no mistake though, Heller and Holofcener rightfully don’t let Israel off the hook for her crimes but they also acknowledge the bizarre nature of how her crimes inadvertently added value to the work she copied in a very tongue-in-cheek manner.

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we will see the nominations flood in for McCarthy, Grant, Heller and Holofcener once awards season rolls around. It is because of their immense talent and commitment to the craft that this story is as wholly resonant, tender and amazing. Israel in a way represents all of us at our worst and most desperate and as anyone who has been in those moments knows, it’s there that you find your real voice.