The Pitch: No one wants to read a biography about Fanny Brice. That’s a reality that biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) stubbornly refuses to face, even as her rent falls months behind, her relationship with her agent (Jane Curtin) grows ever more strained, and her vet refuses to take a look at her sick cat until she’s paid up in full. She’s a writer with a subject no one seems to care about much anymore, and a person without the patience or social skills to navigate such a situation with anything like grace. Nearly friendless — save for the rakish, down-on-his luck charmer Jack (Richard E. Grant), with whom she reunites with in a bar — and desperate for cash, she takes the skill no one wants and makes it lucrative. She doesn’t write about Fanny Brice. She writes as her, using her diamond of a mind and a slew of typewriters to craft breathtakingly witty, absolutely fraudulent celebrity letters.
A True Story of a Great Fake: Not all stories of the based-on-a-true-story variety are created equal, but this is the best kind of truth: the kind that’s almost too implausible to be fiction. Adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s book of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? treats the many contradictions of Lee’s life as a sort of tacit permission to embody those contradictions in the film. In one scene, you’re watching a slow-burn romantic comedy, the sort Nora Ephron — one of the personas Lee tries on — might concoct. In the next, the tempo picks up, and you’re suddenly neck-deep in the slick, assured world of the heist film, complete with a percolating score from Nate Heller. It dabbles in courtroom drama, in cringe comedy, and in the up-all-night delirium of the Before trilogy; the shifts are subtle, but palpable, as though the film itself is trying on the styles and lives its protagonist so nimbly adopts.
It’s a clever magic trick, so minute that many of those shifts may be more felt than realized, and director Marielle Heller pulls it off because of what the film is above all: a character study, rendered most often as a duet. In McCarthy and Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me? can rightly lay claim to two of the year’s most engaging performances, and Heller, Holofcener, and Whitty give the pair a hell of a feast. Their rich, thoughtful work grounds both the implausible (true) story and the subtly daring filmmaking in the cruelty, vulnerability, and heartbreaking humor of these two people, making even the most audacious turns seem not only plausible, but painfully honest.
Restraint as a Virtue: Those surprised that Melissa McCarthy is more than capable of a dramatic, subtle turn simply haven’t been paying attention — even in Bridesmaids, the film’s climax hinged on her ability to bring emotional resonance to the forefront. But Can You Ever Forgive Me? makes better use of those skills than anything she’s done in years, and it does so by allowing her to pull back when others would push forward. As played by McCarthy, Lee is a deeply unpleasant person, but the intimacy of her performance makes clear how and why she lashes out: sorrow, grief, betrayal, and even love are all emotions that threaten the just-barely-okay bunker she’s built for herself, and when that bunker is threatened, the blades come out.
McCarthy never overplays her hand, and her impeccable comic timing never abandons her, but her ability to keep the big emotional stuff to a 6 when she’s clearly feeling a 10 allows the audience to see the cogs of the coping mechanisms, and to feel the things Lee refuses to acknowledge — particularly in a brief, breathtaking scene in which she watches a lounge singer (Mx Justin Vivian Bond) in a drag bar, and in nearly every interaction she has with Lee’s beloved cat.
But McCarthy isn’t the only one who knows how to hold back. Grant’s performance is every bit the equal of McCarthy’s, though Jack’s method of coping is based on looking and playing a part, rather than pushing away both emotions and the people who spur them. Heller and the film’s screenwriters don’t feel the need to hold the audience’s hand, either; the AIDS crisis is acknowledged with a brief reference to dead friends, then never leaves the background, and moments of affection and forgiveness can be summarized with a laugh, a smile, and a particularly sunny day (captured beautifully, as is the whole, by cinematographer Brandon Trost). That undeniable virtue makes the film’s stumbles all the more noticeable, sadly. (An on-the-nose courtroom speech is the single biggest offender.) Still, it’s an admirable pursuit, and one that draws the audience, slowly but unrelentingly, into the lives of these people and their almost unbelievable scam.
The Verdict: Can You Ever Forgive Me? isn’t reinventing the wheel. This is a biopic, plain and simple — a very good one, and like the best of its ilk, one that centers on a specific period of time, rather than attempting an ill-fated chronicle of a rich life in full. Its moments of creativity and daring, while effective and elevating, never even approach the audacity of the subject on which they center, and it’s easy to wish that Heller had pressed down a bit more firmly on the gas. But the overall effect is so simply pleasing, the performances so honest and engaging, and the story, frankly, so worthy of an earnest what the fuck? that it’s hard to work up the steam for any kind of complaint. It all works, and works well.
There are three elements that push past “well” and into the territory of “spectacularly”: McCarthy, Grant, and Lee Israel herself. It’s likely that the draw for many will be the woman who gets top billing, and rightly so, but she’s blessed with a fascinating role to play, and a hell of a story to tell. When up against the wall, Lee Israel turned her talent for understanding the sparkling minds of yesteryear into a doozy of a racket, trading on her incandescent wit. Equal parts champagne and campari, brimstone and breeze, she aimed to both deceive and delight. The film that tells her story, and the woman who fills her shoes, somehow capture that bitterness and effervescence in one. That’s a hell of an accomplishment, capturing her voice so astutely. It’s the kind of stunt only someone like Lee Israel could pull off.
Where’s It Playing?: Can You Ever Forgive Me? is out now in limited release, and will expand in the following weeks.