Every so often, a work of cinematic nostalgia comes along which amazes and astounds, all at once showing a passion for the history that Hollywood often finds difficult to appreciate. Midnight in Paris, perhaps? Maybe Hail, Caesar!? In her latest film, Can You Ever Forgive Me, director Marielle Heller elevates a story which many other directors would peg as simply a crime triller or heist feature. However, in her sophomore effort, Heller creates a loving take on a passionate, but complicated woman. While it might not have the glitz of the above movies, Can You Ever Forgive Me brings the same passionate sense of nostalgia.
Can You Ever Forgive Me follows the real life story of celebrity biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy). A passionate researcher with a love for all-things vintage (like my girl Dorothy Parker!) Israel finds herself struggling as the cultural shift of the 1980s and 1990s which leaves her books seeming decidedly “unsexy”. Who wants to buy a book about Fanny Brice anyway? Suddenly, Israel finds herself without a day job just as her cat gets sick, a fly infestation besets her apartment and rent comes due. She realizes there’s one thing she can do… she’s a heck of a forger. She rides high and fast, selling forged letters from literary icons on the happening New York collector’s scene. Marielle Heller directs the film from a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.
Sometimes a performer stumbles on a role which brings the ability to not only evolve, but redefine the course of a career. Actors search for that part to propel them to the next level of their career. This is that role for McCarthy. Known to audiences for her comedic strength, McCarthy stuck around the entertainment industry for the better part of twenty years, making her screen debut in 1997. It took seven years on Gilmore Girls and another 6 on Mike and Molly for her movie career to take off. Her work with Paul Feig on Bridesmaids in 2011 established her as a comedic A-lister, even securing her a rare Academy Award nomination for a comedy. Lee Israel is that illusory next level role for Melissa McCarthy. Let’s see where she goes from here.
Working with Heller, McCarthy (and the always delightful Richard E. Grant) craft two of the most complicated and developed characters to cross movie screens this year. Both performers bring a keen eye for who these people are… they’ve been bruised, they’re battered. Life chewed them up and spit them out. Late in the second act, Israel mentions that she prefers the company of her cat to humans. In fact, in the hands of other performers, these roles run the risk of being harsh, problematic and even unlikable. However, as the action plays out on screen, you can’t help but like them. McCarthy in particular portrays a finely tuned, guarded vulnerability as Israel. She doesn’t let people in, because she did at one point, and she got burned.
The crafting of Israel’s relationship with Jack Hock (Grant) weaves together the performer’s finely tuned character work with a stellar script. It doesn’t take long to realize these two compliment each other. She’s strong for him, and he in turn provides the right support for her. Midway through the second act, Jack stays to help an embarrassed Lee clean her apartment after an exterminator flatly refuses to help her until she straightens the place up (… tortured writer…). The moment is sweet, simple and understated. Yet, it shows you just how these individuals work together. In the hands of these two seasoned performers, at least one (if not both) is not in the conversation come awards season, it’ll be a definite snub.
As a fan of all things vintage, the creative team does a stellar job weaving a sense of nostalgia into the narrative. Known as a journalist and researcher, Lee Israel penned books on Dorothy Killgallen, Tallulah Bankhead and Estee Lauder. The story makes effective use of literary luminaries like Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward. These are figures who (while the epitome of hip in the 1930s) were loosing their luster by the films 1990s setting. Can You Ever Forgive Me injects a love of these figures, and in turn a love of history, into Israel’s character. As she falls deeper into the forging, she conveys the feeling that (at some level) she’s letting these figures live on through her… so what if she’s making some money out of the deal. It is in turn a fascinating personality quirk that Israel is so insecure about her voice as a writer, she feels more comfortable mimicking the voices of other people. She proclaims herself a better Dorthy Parker than Dorothy Parker, and she’s not entirely wrong.
At the same time, there’s a well-crafted appreciation for this sense of history in the film’s stylistic construction as well. As mentioned, Can You Ever Forgive Me is set in 1990s New York, which feels relatively grimy. However, this movie brings a love of nostalgia in a way only stories like Midnight in Paris have before. Heller and composer Nate Heller incorporates a soundtrack which easily captures the luster of New York at its literary finest There’s Patti Page, Dinah Washington, Fred Astaire and Peggy Lee. The loving hand that Heller and her creative team bring to the very specialized nature of the content really elevates this material.
Can You Ever Forgive Me is definitely a darling of this year, and shouldn’t be missed for anyone passionate about film. This is a powerful and well-crafted story which definitely deserves to be told, and in the more than capable hands of Melissa McCarthy, the movie should continue to be a presence deep into awards season.
Can You Ever Forgive Me rolls out to more theaters on November 2nd.