The holiday season is typically filled with a lot of generic movies looking to capitalize on the season but there’s actually a good amount of high-quality films available in theaters. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of those under the radar offerings that stand out in the crowd.
As someone who has never really been excited for one of her movies, Melissa McCarthy was dynamic in this role. She’s been basically the same character…a lot…and those all served a purpose, but this was the kind of role that truly flushed out the depth of her substantial talent. Obviously, her sense of humor and sarcastic delivery are a strong asset and they worked splendidly with the alcoholic and mostly reclusive Israel. In many ways, this is the finest performance of McCarthy’s career…transformative even. She was able to shine in a much more dramatic turn while still giving audiences that familiarity which helped make her a star. Watch out for her in the Best Actress category at year’s end.
It takes two to tango and Richard Grant was brilliant opposite her as well. He played Jack Hock, a street-savvy grifter who managed to charm his way through life. The two have potent chemistry, without the romantic angle, and that was the engine which drove the film. It wouldn’t have been entertaining to watch Isreal go through the precarious journey alone and having an equally repugnant but loveable friend to partake in the adventure was an important part of selling the sympathetic narrative to the audience. Grant has a natural charisma that fits well with the stylish and flamboyant Hock. He serves as a sounding board for Israel but also as a mostly unreliable moral compass. Grant and McCarthy worked exceptionally well with one another and he could easily find himself in the conversation for Best Supporting Actor.
Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) demonstrated a strong understanding when it came to the meat of the story. Sculpting the narrative was a tricky but focusing on the colorful characters at the center of it was the right choice. Let’s not forget what these characters, Israel specifically, did and the ramifications of their actions but framing it in the context of who those people were made for a much more well rounded…human…experience. This was a well executed and promising offering from the young filmmaker who may find herself in line for some prestigious hardware during awards season.
The screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty is adapted from the memoir of the same name, written by Lee Israel. A biographer who always did her best work on behalf of other people but, in the end, the story of literary forgery belongs solely to her. Oddly enough, Israel wasn’t given a writing credit even though it was her true story, so I’m guessing there were some factual liberties taken. The dialogue was exceptionally well written, capturing a wicked sense of humor without feeling cheap or needing to devolve into slapstick territory. Even though this is a true crime story, it plays much differently and moves along at such a brisk pace that it retains the personal touch all the way to the end. It’s smart and engaging while still giving the audience all the pertinent elements of her criminal endeavor. This could very well be one of the Best Adapted Screenplay contenders.
Production Designer Stephen H. Carter presented a very drab view of New York in the 90s. Set mostly in bookstores and libraries, things were very beige and muted throughout the film, which enhanced key moments where the application of lipstick or the slight styling of the hair had a much larger impact. Some of that is due to the characters not being the most fashionable individuals, but there’s a noticeable and intentional lack of style. Arjun Bhasin costumed the characters to reflect the environment and made them look almost like old books themselves. Those stylistic choices made Grant’s Hock stand out in a sea of otherwise banal individuals. The cluttered and unkempt set design by Sarah E. McMillan further served to illustrate and reflect Israel’s character, both inside and out.
A story such as this wouldn’t be complete, or be quite as impactful, without some strong music helping to guide the way. After all, this is a caper film at its core and building tension is a key element in selling the narrative successfully. The soundtrack is loaded down with 50s era Jazz (including New York stalwart Blossom Dearie) that carries something of a somber tone which reflected Israel’s loneliness and self-loathing. Nate Heller designed some nice compositions with those influences in mind that helped string together those in-between moments and make a cohesive experience from start to finish.
This movie piqued my interest when I first came across the trailer but kind of got lost in the shuffle. I try not to get my hopes up anymore, for fear of disappointment, but this film certainly delivered on its potential. This movie was surprisingly good. Not because it didn’t have potential, to begin with, but because it brought more to the table than advertised. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of the year’s best films and can definitely be a contender for Best Picture down the road.
Recommendation: Whether you’re a fan of Melissa McCarthy or not, this was a pleasant turn for her and can be rewarding for both sides. It’s just a really well-made and film and a well-told story that’s surprisingly engaging. The R-rating is accurate, but it’s not such a hard R that you couldn’t take some older kids to see it.