Everyone loves a good con artist story. They’re usually, speedy, energetic capers about the follies of living too fast and too hard, only for the harsh realities to come swift and vengeful. Notables that come to mind are Catch Me if You Can, The Wolf of Wall Street and American Made, all movies with charismatic leads who flesh out these larger than life personalities as they jet-set, splurge and indulge until they collapse. Can You Ever Forgive Me? has a lot in common with those sorts of movies at its core, but is a completely different experience that is no less rewarding. Taking a much softer approach, this story of a grifter and a scammer utilizes a pair of subtle yet booming performances from Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant to explore the insecurities, self-absorption, fear and genuine talent of a woman who resorted to crime to live up to the expectations of herself – and it’s an exceptionally witty and brilliant ride.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? tells the story of Lee Israel, a biographer who — like the lead singer of an 80s glam rock band that had one big hit years and years ago — believes there are more than enough dying fans of hers out there eagerly awaiting her next project. The sad part is no one wants to hear Aging Balding Metal Man anymore, and no one wants to read Lee Israel anymore. Broke, behind on bills, and living among flies and a sick, beloved cat, this bitter, insecure, crude, slovenly old crone is out of options, work and everything else. But she is a talented writer. In fact, she’s so good, that when she discovers a letter by long-dead vaudeville star Fanny Brice (yes, THAT Fanny Brice), she adds a bit of flavor to it in the form of a “P.S.”, and then after convincing the buyer it’s an authentic Brice, sells it for a good chunk of change. Israel continues to do this for other literary legends like Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and more, totaling a whopping 400 letters.
Director Marielle Heller and screenwriter Nicole Holofcenter ensure this movie maintains a deglamorized, casual tone that carries through the movie that takes place in early-90s Manhattan. The bookstores and antique collectors Israel visits are warm and cluttered, filled with books with yellowing pages and dust on the jackets. Lee’s home – albeit filled with uncleaned cat mess and used dishes – is a writer’s home, for sure, filled with torn note pages and overfilled shelves of books. But don’t mistake this for a quiet drama, and even though it’s a stripped down, lovingly-told biopic it’s enlivened by the sharp tongues and brash personalities of McCarthy’s Israel and Grant’s Jack Hock – who loves to rhyme his name “who has a big cock.” As Israel and Hock carelessly benefit from this life of crime Israel validates her acts as it being her actual writing gifts paying the bills (and in a way, it is), only to have to face the fact she copied these writers’ style and voices all to avoid confronting her own insecurities about her own, original work.
McCarthy, who makes her Benjamins starring in forgettable, exhausting comedies like Tammy, The Boss and Life of the Party, proves that with the right role she can masterfully extinguish the broad comedy and dig her fingers deep into a character like Israel. Always a great physical performer (see Bridesmaids and Spy), she brings Israel’s infamous stubbornness and vulgarity to life with seething, often hilarious reactions – like when she throws a tantrum when her agent (Jane Curtain) tells her she has to be a nice person in order to get more book deals. It’s her best work to date, blending her quick wit and comedic timing with a heartbreaking, relatable portrait coming to terms with who she is as an artist. Every award she has coming her way is rightfully earned, and the same applies to Grant, who is a showstopper alongside her. His sly, devilish smile makes his debaucherous, possibly homeless character come off like a lovable rogue from a Dickens novel, and Grant devours every morsel of screen time.
This movie is worth the price of admission on McCarthy and Grant alone – and it’s even better that a fascinating, lovingly-told tale of crime and artistic expression comes with them. The film may not have the quick pace or infectious energy of other con/crime biographical movies, but what we get in its place is a deeply honest and effecting true story – the adaptation of which will go down as some of the best work from everyone involved.