Thursday, November 15, 2018

Movie Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? **** / *****
Directed by: Marielle Heller.
Written by: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.
Starring: Melissa McCarthy (Lee Israel), Richard E. Grant (Jack Hock), Dolly Wells (Anna), Ben Falcone (Alan Schmidt), Gregory Korostishevsky (Andre), Jane Curtin (Marjorie), Stephen Spinella (Paul), Christian Navarro (Kurt), Pun Bandhu (Agent Doyle), Erik LaRay Harvey (Agent Solonas), Brandon Scott Jones (Glen), Shae D'lyn (Nell), Rosal Colon (Rachel), Anna Deavere Smith (Elaine), Marc Evan Jackson (Lloyd).
The history of comedic actors taking on more serious roles and “surprising” people with how good they are in them is long. It’s how actors like Robin Williams won Oscars. I’ve always felt though that the best examples of this, are when the more serious roles have a little bit of that comedic personality that the actor has always shown – but sees it in a different light. The best example of this may well be Adam Sandler in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Punch-Drunk Love, which was really the first time the true extent of the Sandler persona’s introversion, social awkwardness, and violent tendencies was explored.
There is some of that in Melissa McCarthy’s role in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? McCarthy was, of course, a talented working actor for a while before Bridesmaids made her a comedic superstar, with some great, more serious roles on her filmography (check her work in the underseen The Nines for example) – but since Bridesmaids, McCarthy has become known for her larger than life, in your face characters – prone to ranting and raving, and making a spectacle of herself. But for me, there has always been an undercurrent of insecurity to McCarthy’s work – her characters are often lonely. They are good at their jobs, but no one notices them. She rants and raves, and makes scenes, and they are often funny – but that’s because of the context they are presented.
Here, she is playing Lee Israel, a 51-year-old writer, living in New York circa 1991 – a biographer who disappears into her subjects, and as such doesn’t have much of a writer’s personality that people will recognize. When the film opens, she is working on a new book – but also as a copyeditor somewhere, working late at night, until she offends her boss and gets fired. She is a lesbian – but hasn’t had a relationship in a while. She doesn’t seem to have any friends either, and her agent (Jane Curtain) is tired of her. She is kind to her aging cat – who has gotten sick – and no one else really. She is facing eviction from her crummy apartment. Like many a McCarthy character, she can rant and rave and carry on – but it’s not so funny her. There is sadness there, as people just wish she would go away.
By accident, Lee stumbles into a new moneymaking venture. She discovers a type written note by Fanny Brice – her latest subject – and is able to sell it for a few bucks. She is told if the content is better, she could get even more money. So, she starts to study different writers – Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, etc. – and reproduce letters by them to friends. Because she can now write whatever she wants, of course the content becomes juicier – and the paycheques get bigger. It’s only a matter of time before this will all come crashing down of course – but she doesn’t know that. She also makes her first real friend in a long time – Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who is as flamboyant and outgoing as Lee is introverted and private – although he has fallen on even tougher time. Perhaps they are just friends because no one would want to be, but theirs is a real friendship.
McCarthy is brilliant in the role of Israel – she doesn’t strive to make her sympathetic, which is precisely why she remains sympathetic, even as she does some fairly awful things. This is the quietest performance McCarthy has given in a while – but there is still that same kind of personality underneath that exterior. For his part, this is arguably the best work of Grant’s career – he is charming and funny, and outgoing, but there is a sadness to his character as well. He’s putting on a show as he always has – just fewer people are watching.
The film was directed by Marielle Heller – whose great debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, took place in the 1970s, and was about a teenage girl coming-of-age in terms of her art work, and her sexuality, in interesting ways. Here, I think she tops her debut – making a film that gives these characters an interesting world to inhabit – this is a gloomy New York of dive bars, dusty book store, and rundown apartments (and apparently, no sun) – and it works. Can You Ever Forgive Me is the type of film that gives an actress like McCarthy a chance to show the talent that was always there – hiding in plain sight.

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