In director Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Melissa McCarthy (“Spy,” “The Boss”) dismantles the male gaze with vigor and ingenuity — one glass of whiskey at a time.
In arguably one of the best performances of her career, McCarthy portrays the struggling yet savvy real-life biographer Lee Israel, who authored books detailing the lives of celebrities, such as Estée Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead.
As her writing career begins to wane, Israel finds herself lacking a job, money and motivation, while struggling to care for her only companion — her beloved cat. As Israel’s determination continues to falter, she runs into the friend of a friend at a local bar, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), and the two immediately take a liking to each other.
As Israel finds herself in an unlikely friendship, she simultaneously becomes involved in something more unusual and criminal.
After selling a signed letter from a celebrity to pay off her cat’s medical bills, Israel has the brilliant idea to forge letters from famous authors and sell them. She soon discovers her writing skills are even greater than she first perceived, and she begins to make a considerable living on the money earned from selling fake literary artifacts.
Although Israel’s literary scheme is somewhat short-lived, she has enough talent to reflect the personalities of famous authors through the letters she forged — proving her raw ingenuity and intelligence.
McCarthy’s subtleness and unflinching honesty as an actress made her character unforgettable. She perfectly captured Israel’s desperation and quiet fortitude, and in the film’s most heartbreaking moments, she reflected the loneliness at the heart of her character. McCarthy is outstanding throughout the film, proving her ability to seamlessly transition between humor and seriousness.
In what feels like the first time in cinematic history, the female protagonist isn’t defined by her sexuality. While the film depicts Israel’s developing relationship with bookstore owner, Anna (Dolly Wells), this piece of her personal life is treated with nonchalance and familiarity.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is refreshingly progressive and female-dominated, imbuing McCarthy’s character with enough strength and independence to rival any man who crosses her path. Israel occasionally hits up her local bar for whiskey on the rocks while sizing up her life’s problems with intense scrutiny and provocation.
Israel employs her own deceptive skills to fool the mostly male artifact dealers into buying her forged documents. For the majority of her career in forgery, the author thrives off the genius of female writers, such as Dorothy Parker, as she writes fake personal letters in their names.
In addition to McCarthy’s powerhouse performance, Grant does an excellent job of portraying Hock as an ostentatious, lackadaisical man with superior street smarts and an eye for humor — making Hock’s medical diagnosis at the film’s end especially heartbreaking.
The film’s only setback is Nate Heller’s ‘50s reminiscent musical score, which awkwardly clashed with the modernity and seriousness of McCarthy’s character.
However, Brandon Trost’s cinematography succeeded in emphasizing the obscurity and suffocating nature of Israel’s situation, making her small New York City apartment seem like the most dismal and depressing place on earth.
The camera left little room for interpretation when focusing in on McCarthy’s face in several scenes. Lacking a trace of makeup while wearing a consistently furrowed brow, McCarthy embraced her role with astonishing sincerity — offering arguably one of the most genuine performances of films from the past few years.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” doesn’t establish Israel as a conniving criminal, but rather as a struggling and resourceful writer who uses her intelligence to navigate the system. If anything, Heller’s film stands as a testament to the unspoken strength of women and the often-overlooked importance of the legacy of female writers.
With McCarthy’s powerhouse portrayal and a moving storyline, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” establishes itself as an affecting tale of wit and survival — one that must be seen to be believed.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is now playing at select theaters nationwide. The film, rated R, can be seen at Chicago’s Landmark Century Centre Cinema (2828 N. Clark St.).