I confess that when I heard a small indie film about the life of author Lee Israel was to star Melissa McCarthy I was confused. McCarthy is not generally associated with drama. Her wheelhouse is comedy. Melissa McCarthy led comedies tend to range from the very good Spy to the adyssmal Happy Time Murders but more often than not they are like the forgettable Life of the Party.
I had McCarthy pigeonholed. Her identity and range as a performer were limited to comedy in my mind. I dismissed her, skipped her movies when they were in theatres, thought of her as less than she really was. I know I am alone in this misconception, I have a plethora of dismissive internet articles that say exactly that but with a much higher word count.
In many was McCarthy is a perfect fit for Can You Ever Forgive Me? The story of Lee Israel— an author who in the 1990’s made a small fortune forging correspondence from famous authors, Dorothy Parker being the most notable, is a story of a woman underestimated and undervalued in her profession.
McCarthy completely disappears into the role. The usually outgoing and verbose McCarthy becomes sullen and frosty. It’s a surprising turn for McCarthy. I say that knowing that I should not be surprised that McCarthy has this performance in her. While the waters of comedy and drama have different tastes, the emotional well they draw from is ultimately the same.
My gut reaction is to say that it speaks to the genius of director Marielle Heller to recognise thus when casting McCarthy. However, I suspect that genius had very little to do with the final decision. I believe that honesty was a much bigger player.
It takes honesty to look at someone without the preconceptions our culture has about them and then to recognise the talent that lies there and the way you underestimated them before. After all, it is an industry run by men who typecast women in certain roles. It takes a woman to recognise the capability of another woman in a role like this, regardless of how it appears superficially.
I write about all this before even starting my review of the movie itself because the internal narrative of Can You Ever Forgive Me? infiltrates the exterior production much like Israel’s forgeries circulated through New York. The line “A ‘him’ gets noticed. A ‘her’ gets ignored”, from Oceans 8 springs to mind when I think about Can You Ever Forgive Me?. This is a film equally concerned with what an individual can accomplish when they’re power is undervalued.
However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the smarter and quieter cousin of Ocean’s 8. There’s no time for the splash and glamour of Ocean’s 8 here. Both films take place in New York, but they are two different cities. There’s no Met Gala to be robbed, no crime being committed for fun. This version of New York is run down and shabby, a place where you are forgotten if you’re not someone.
Lee Israel commits crime to survive, because that’s what Can You Ever Forgive Me? ultimately is, a survival story. Certainly, there are splashes of buddy comedy with McCarthy bouncing off Richard E. Grant who plays Jack Hock— a flamboyant foil for the caustic Israel. However, they are still a pair of buddies just fighting to exist.
As Israel and Hock frequent gay bars and shabby independent book shops we see the side of 90’s New York that is barely remembered in the collective culture. These are the regular haunts of the likes of Israel and Hock, because nowhere else is willing to acknowledge that they are people of worth and value.
Israel is a writer who struggles to find an authorial voice, she doesn’t mingle well, she won’t dress up at parties, who she is not valued. Israel isn’t a regular protagonist, there’s nothing likeable or sexy about her. But Heller treats her with the same delicacy and respect as any other lead.
Respect is key here. Heller at all times gives respect to every aspect of Can You Ever Forgive Me? It’s this that draws out what is possibly the best performance from Melissa McCarthy to date (I think so and am disappointed she didn’t win the Oscar). McCarthy plays Israel as prickly and hard to get to know. Yet her vulnerability shines through always. It’s impossible not sympathise with this woman who desperately wants to connect but can’t because the world won’t let her because of who she is.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? builds itself around that emotion. The script focuses on the frustration and hurt from being neglected that Israel and Hock feel and explores it with a brutal honesty. Their friendship feels natural as it evolves from the same place of hurt and it stings all the more when conflict pushes them apart.
You can see what’s put them where they are, but you know they can’t fight their battles without each other. No one else believes in them. Heller finds emotion in side streets shadowed by the New York skyline and in between the dusty shelves of the bookshops Israel scams. These are stories that have always existed, and now someone is willing to tell them.
That is the genius of Can You Ever Forgive Me? Heller, with McCarthy as her muse, finds a story that feels original and fresh not by reinventing a genre, but just by taking the time to be honest and depict the kind of figure who society goes out of its way to see forgotten.