There’s something magical about capturing the life of a criminal in a proper biopic. At least, that’s what it seems like when it comes to most films focused on a larcenous subject, as we’ve seen before in films like Catch Me If You Can. In the case of Can You Ever Forgive Me, director Marielle Heller’s film based on the true crimes of author Lee Israel, crime is still fun, but the consequences and true sadness of Israel’s existence aren’t omitted in the process. The result is an evenly balanced biopic that showcases several spectacular performances, and impressive narrative clarity.
In 1991, after losing her job and unable to get any writing published, author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) takes to selling memorabilia and books in order to make ends meet for her sick cat. Soon enough, she learns that the world of celebrity letters is not only lucrative, but also a viable artistic outlet that gives her the creative success she’s always wanted. With the help of a dear friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant,) Lee would go on to fool almost everyone with her work. Everyone, except herself.
Right from the beginning, it must be said that Can You Ever Forgive Me just might be Melissa McCarthy’s best performance to date. Her portrayal of Israel could have devolved into some of the standard tropes that past characters of McCarthy’s have often exhibited. She doesn’t like people, drinks too much, and pushes relationships away quite easily. And yet, as we’ve seen this sort of behavior exuded by Melissa McCarthy characters of the past, she doesn’t abuse her skills to bring Lee Israel to life.
Yes, there are laughs to be had; and indeed, we come to like and loathe Lee in equal parts. But there’s a depth to McCarthy’s work this time out that shows a side that filmmakers have failed to properly show off to this point. Her comedic timing is put to the test, as she’s made to balance humor and drama in a more intense fashion than she’s ever done before. The best part is that the star pulls it off admirably, making you feel for her character all the more as you see her essentially scamming New York’s collector’s circuit.
While we’re praising performances, there’s two crucial supporting turns that deserve as much praise: Dolly Wells’ romantic interest, Anna, and Richard E. Grant’s partner-in-crime, Jack. In the case of Anna, Wells milks every single line she’s given to play, as her subdued bookseller is a bittersweet presence in Lee’s life. She’s a limited presence, but Can You Ever Forgive Me uses her talents like properly placed punctuation.
Grant, on the other hand, threatens to steal this film out from under everyone else’s feet, which is no surprise considering the man’s legendary talents. But much like his scene partner, he knows when to turn on the charm, and when to scale back to a more conversational tone. He and Melissa McCarthy bristle with energy, whether they be scheming or sighing, and if they never work together again it would be a crying shame.
Te strongest element of Can You Ever Forgive Me is arguably its story. Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty take good care of Lee Israel’s real-life misadventure by making sure not only to focus on the crime, but also to pay good attention to telling the tale of the person behind the actions. So as we’re seeing Lee pursue her path of criminal behavior, we also get to know what type of person she is. When the film arrives to its conclusion, we’ve not only seen a crime, we’ve seen the life that lead to it.
Can You Ever Forgive Me is a film that takes a larger than life story, and tells it with characters and actions that speak at a more conversational tone. It isn’t shouting or telegraphing its story to the audience, rather it’s just letting it unfold at its own easy pace. In a market where biopics are running the risk of becoming rote, blockbuster affairs themselves, it’s nice to know that there are still films, such as this one, that take the time to make an experience worth enjoying.