Chin chin! A half-cut treat to see off a dry January, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an immensely enjoyable and assured tragi-comic memoir, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in a spirited double act as a pair of grifting boozehounds in early 90’s New York.
McCarthy has made her name playing loud, sweary and angry, but beneath her characters’ luridly detailed, improv-style threats of violence there is usually a blinking pilot light of sadness, marking women who feel beaten down, ignored and overlooked. The puppy-nabbing outsider in Bridesmaids; the minimum-wage worker in Tammy; the aggrieved middle-aged woman ditched by her husband in Life of the Party. McCarthy has basically worked in two comic modes; Paul Fieg movies, with their rambly streams of dialogue, strong female friendships and weak photography; and those written and directed by her husband Ben Falcone (who gets a supporting role here), under-worked and fatally broad.
Here, finally, she breaks out into something more interesting, still funny but layered, as a complex, bewildered failure whose sadness is front and centre, and whose outbursts are reactions to a world that is no longer listening.
The question of voice and legitimacy is central to the narrative, which turns on a real-life caper of forged literary memorabilia and unlikely outlets for creative frustrations. McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a struggling biography writer who had success in 70’s and 80’s, but can’t get her agent to return her calls. A quick opening scene makes clear her alienation from the city’s literary establishment: others confidently hold court, while Israel, bored and disgusted by social schmoozing, throws back her drink and takes someone else’s fancy coat from the cloakroom, the sort of petty reflexive self-sabotage that has helped steer her personal and professional life into a rut.
Israel is working on a book about vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice, but no-one cares. Her cat, her only companion, is sick, but she hasn’t paid her balance at the vets. With bad hair and an even worse attitude, Israel is unmarketable as a personality, her insistence on a professional anonymity — of hiding behind her subjects, the ones who really matter — coming off like risk-averse deflection. When her agent (Jane Curtin) lays out exactly why Israel is “no Tom Clancy”, it is a dressing-down with the weary, seasoned practicality of a professor dealing with a bright but difficult student.
Screenwriter Nicole Holofcener excels at the rhythms of believable friendships, and of female protagonists who struggle with being a good person. Forgive Me is Marielle Heller’s sophomore directorial effort, after 2015’s terrific, under-seen The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and both films share an appreciation for flailing heroines and a lightly worn but authentic period feel. The early 90’s setting complicates Israel’s loneliness by implicating a socially suspect, frustrated queer desire (she pushes away Dolly Wells’ flirty elfin bookseller), and it gives her con-woman operation a satisfying analogue charm.
Desperate to give form to her voice, make some quick cash and, less consciously, pay respect to a faded tradition of artistic integrity, Israel starts impersonating dead, famous icons in counterfeit papers of correspondence, carefully transcribing and embellishing their witty cadence. Turns out she’s a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker was. Aided by her new friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), she swindles collectors across the city, before, inevitably, and with stomach-turning tension, authorities start asking questions. Grant is resplendent as the twinkly-eyed, smooth-talking man about town, Withnail with nil time left, swanning into bars and coming onto waiters, a Wildean decadent with reptilian glamour.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of those films so sure of its world, and the people in it, that you could triple the runtime with no real loss of pleasure. A clear-eyed, moving and back-handed celebration of lives lived in the margins. Conor Smyth
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is out in wide release.