Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Mother Teresa once observed that “loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”
On all counts, author Lee Israel was living in poverty. She was lonely, felt unwanted and couldn’t pay rent. She’d written books that made the New York Times best seller list, but her pen had run dry and her wallet was empty.
She didn’t much like people, and so they were happy to leave her to drink by herself. The women she might love to love, aren’t interested.
She lives alone in New York City with her cat, in an apartment that smells bad enough that an exterminator won’t enter to kill the bugs.
Seems impossible that we should like such a woman, but Melissa McCarthy finds the humanity inside Lee, and by film’s end we genuinely care for her.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” begins with Lee at dead bottom. When her cat falls ill, she takes kitty to the vet only to be turned away because she hasn’t paid past bills.
So, she starts selling her old books to used bookstores. Next she parts with personal treasures off her walls.
She’s desperate. She’s bottomed out.
When she can go no lower, she discovers that there’s a market for letters written by great authors. And so, she starts forging letters and selling them.
The scheme works. She starts paying bills.
But this is not a crime movie. This a tender portrait of two lonely gay people.
One is Lee. The other is Jack, an equally lonely man Lee meets in a bar. Both Lee and Jack have dark wits, fueled by alcohol. Both are lost souls, who find one another.
We like them despite their weaknesses. But, in the end, we like them because of their weaknesses.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a portrait of loneliness, told with unusual sensitivity and insight. The goodness inside people who do bad things shines through even as the crimes multiply.
We also like these people because they are very funny – in dark ways. McCarthy’s role is dramatic, but told with sarcastic ironic humor.
McCarthy will most assuredly be nominated for Best Actress, and Richard E. Grant may win Supporting Actor recognition. He’s already won an award from the New York Critics Circle for this role. Some moviegoers may remember him as art historian Simon Bricker, from Downton Abbey.
This is an ensemble tour de force, of the kind we saw with Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper in “Silver Lining Playbook” or by Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt in “As Good as it Gets.” The McCarthy/Grant chemistry is genuine. Reportedly, they spent time between scenes together, just laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Easy to believe.
The film itself is good, but no masterpiece. It’s an acting showcase. The story of forgery, even though factual, is thin, just an excuse to bring two down-and-outs up out of their holes to see if they can see their shadows.
When they see each other instead, the film becomes eccentric, electric – and a delight.
McCarthy’s move from silly comedy to heavy drama, with threads of dark humor, is welcome. She had begun to stereotype herself. Not all comics can make that switch either because they don’t have the depth or because their fans won’t accept them in dark roles.
But McCarthy is the real deal.
So, I’ve been fooled twice this year.
First, I found out that Lady Gaga can both sing and act.
Now, I discover McCarthy is a fine actress, not just an SNL comic. But long live Sean Spicer!
Glad to be proved wrong on both counts. I’ll see you at the Oscars, ladies.