Can You Ever Forgive Me? came out during awards season early this year in the UK. I saw it at a festival screening a few months before, and eventually saw it again by taking my girlfriend to a screening during its theatrical run. It sadly got lost in the shuffle, with Roma seemingly going head to head with Green Book by the time the Oscars came around. Richard E. Grant did get a much-deserved Oscar nomination, but sadly was beat by Mahershala Ali’s turn as Don Shirley in Green Book.
Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, who was a biographer of mildly well-known female celebrities and also a freelancer: she met Katherine Hepburn and did a profile on her right before her “life-partner” (Hepburn was actually a lesbian) Spencer Tracey passed away. However, we meet her in the very early ’90s, when her career has taken a serious nosedive. By chance she finds a real letter from Fanny Brice, whom she is currently researching a biography on. She keeps the letter and sells it, but because the content is relatively tame, she decides to write fake letters by notable people like Noël Coward or Dorothy Parker with salacious content to increase the money she can get for them. She is a loner, but becomes friends with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) after meeting him in a rundown gay bar. Soon he gets involved in her illegal activities—he is a small-time drug dealer, so swindling people is not something he is going to frown upon.
It’s essentially a dark comedy about two deeply lonely and misanthropic people who find each other. It’s about a New York that no longer exists, the last gasps of the seediness of the ’70s and ’80s before Rudy Giuliani became mayor and ruined everything that made New York what it was. Richard E. Grant’s performance as Jack got raves, and it was compared favourably to his definitive role as Withnail in Withnail & I. Rightly so, even if Withnail is emotionally unguarded and Jack is the opposite, although they are both total lushes.
I’ve never been a fan of Melissa McCarthy’s comedic work before, but she completely inhabits the role and gives a character a sense of likability even though she could very easily have been portrayed as utterly unlikeable. There is a cult of “likability” in cinema at the moment, where every character has to be “relatable” or “likeable,” and that can be annoying. Here, however, it’s somewhat required to get the viewer on her side when she cons people. It’s been criticised by some for not highlighting the sexualities of the two leaders in the promotional campaign, as if it should have been sold as an “LGBTQ film” when the film never mentions their sexualities, instead it’s depicted in a very matter of fact way… isn’t that progress?
You will laugh, and maybe cry. You will relate to these reprobates, and it’s also a good con film, even though the trailer kind of ruins the whole plot—but the performances are so great that the person who edited that trailer together can be forgiven. It’s also remarkable that the actors got into their roles so quickly after Julianne Moore and Chris O’Dowd left the project not long before it was set to shoot. Sam Rockwell was also set to play Jack at some point. The film’s director, Marielle Heller also replaced the screenwriter Nicole Holofcener at the 11th hour.
The disc includes commentary from McCarthy and Heller; a little under ten minutes of deleted scenes, including a funny one in a cat cafe (Heller also supplies a commentary track); and a handful of very short featurettes, along with some stills galleries and the trailer.