You may recall that I said a lot of nasty things about Melissa McCarthy last year, after her turn in The Happytime Murders, but here she is months later with an Oscar nomination to her name, something I wasn’t expecting when I was watching her share a screen with an ejaculating puppet last August.
Now, I’m all for a good-old career turn around, the best example of which in my opinion is Jim Carrey, going from his wacky mid-90s comedies to winning two Golden Globes in a row for The Truman Show and Man on the Moon, the latter of which is one of my favourite films of all time. These turnarounds are somewhat rare however, not nearly enough do we discover an actors true talent for their fear of taking a risk.
Not only does McCarthy now proudly have an Oscar nom, which is apparently her second, but undervalued British actor Richard E Grant has earned his very first Oscar nomination, which leads me to wonder why it’s taken so long, and why McCarthy had a nomination before him, not that I hold it against her, by the end of this review I may have given her a lot of praise, which is giving too much away, so let’s get on with the review.
In the early 90’s biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has hit a slump in her career, her books aren’t selling, her agent is ignoring her and she is increasingly turning to drink. By chance, she discovers the value of letters written by prominent writers, so she begins a career of embellishing letters which eventually spirals out of control.
Wherever this Melissa McCarthy was hiding, I’d like to know why she stayed hidden for so long. This could not be more opposing to the last film I saw her in, not only does she make the character both likeable and flawed in an impressively dramatic way, but also brings her comedy chops to the table in a much more subtle and, more to the point, smart way.
While watching two hours of an author writing letters might not sound interesting, that’s really only the first layer of this surprisingly deep film. On the surface it’s about someone forging letters, but deep down it’s about loneliness, and it’s effect on a person, who may outwardly choose to be on her own, but really she needs a friend as much as anyone.
Before getting into the acting, I should address the film’s technical attributes, as it’s very well-made behind the camera too. I really like its colour palate, it’s not your typical dark and gritty one, there’s enough colour in there, but the backgrounds mirror the characters, faded and slightly falling apart, along with some excellent framings for its settings, mostly in dusty bookshops, as I say, it’s like the film itself is a reflection of its characters and as a stage for conveying the performances it does a great job.
As you may have gleamed from past statements in this review, I really, really liked Melissa McCarthy in this film, it’s the most subtle I think she’s ever been, in the best way possible, while there are moments of comedy, they are well thought-through and balanced by an extremely grounded and engaging dramatic performance, making us emotionally invested in what really should be a really unlikeable character. It makes me wonder where this talent has been hiding, there’s an extremely emotional scene later on in the film where her character really comes together and cements her place in the audiences heart, and this moment is carried excellently by McCarthy.
Along with McCarthy, Richard E Grant is another bright spot in this film. Once again, he plays a character who should really be unlikeable; he’s arrogant, a compulsive liar, and a thief but you still feel sorry for him. Mainly because it feels like a lot happened in the characters past to bring him to this point, it’s established early in the film that he’s down on his luck, so what unfortunate circumstance brought him to this? He also carries a fair weight of emotion, he, like Lee Israel, is desperately lonely. On the outside he has this facade of popularity when he’s really a troubled, and very lonely man, all of this is handled with expertise by the seasoned Grant, who should really have had more recognition by now.
There aren’t really any big criticisms I could levy against it, I suppose there are moments where the pace noticeably slows, and there’s a lot of peripheral characters who don’t get enough development, but these are small troubles with a largely excellent film.
It is not a typically plot-driven narrative, while the plot is there and important to the story, I’d say the real effectiveness of the film lies in its lead characters, Lee Isreal is simultaneously sympathetic, yet obnoxious and Jack Hock (Grant’s character) has all the necessary character traits to be an antagonist, but it’s the strong writing that make these characters three-dimensional enough to not rely on those kind of labels. In many ways the main plot of Lee and the fraud she commits becomes the background of a blossoming friendship between two interesting, yet deeply flawed, people.
Can You Ever Forgive Me is probably my favourite film of the year thus far for acting and characters alone, but the idea behind the story is turned from its bland-sounding premise, into an intriguing account of someone striking lucky in the most unlikely circumstances, only to come crashing down once again.
In conclusion then, there’s not much left for me to do but recommend Can You Ever Forgive Me, and say that it is a genuine pleasure to be proven wrong by such a genuinely enjoyable performance, even critic can be wrong, who knew?