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American films

Can You Ever Forgive Me? film review: Melissa McCarthy stars as literary forger in fascinating character study

  • In this story about mean people, McCarthy doesn’t make her character likeable
  • Richard E Grant puts on an enjoyable act as a flamboyant street hustler
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 8:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 December, 2018, 8:04pm

4/5 stars

This true story of small-scale forgery and deceit is elevated by a deeply felt and well-schooled performance from Melissa McCarthy, and a colourful showing from British actor Richard E. Grant.

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Based on a memoir by biography writer Lee Israel, who forged letters from deceased literary stars to get by when she hit a rough patch, the story peaks early because writer Nicole Holofcener sticks to the facts. But as a character study it’s excellent, strengthened by director Marielle Heller’s decision to avoid any scenes of sentimentality or redemption.

This is a story about mean and unpleasant people, and it stays that way right to the end – and is all the better for it.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is set in New York in the early 1990s, and takes place in grimy flats, seedy bars, and old-school diners. Israel (McCarthy), a confessed slob with a drinking problem, is fired from her day job for insulting her boss.

Israel’s main gig is as a biographer, but she’s having difficulty finding a taker for her next book.

After selling a genuine letter written by Katharine Hepburn, Israel forges spicy letters by literary luminaries like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, and flogs them to eager collectors. She forms an unlikely relationship with the flamboyant street hustler Jack (Richard E. Grant), who becomes her salesman. But the two are clumsy criminals, and suspicions are raised.

McCarthy essays a misanthropic role, and it’s to her credit that she doesn’t try to make Israel likeable. We understand Israel, we feel for her, but she is always, as Jack tells her, a bit of a “c***” in her dealings with other people. Grant is an enjoyable bonus, as his Jack reminds of the cult character he played in 1987’s Withnail and I.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens on December 13

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