Can You Ever Forgive Me? Boozy, belligerent Melissa McCarthy shows she can act

Review: McCarthy and Richard E Grant excel in Marielle Heller’s decadent drama

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
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Director: Marielle Heller
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella
Running Time: 1 hr 48 mins

Marielle Heller’s essential second feature concerns an accomplished but uncompromising talent living in a scruffy corner of New York in the last decades of the 20th century.

Our protagonist does try to get work, but her belligerent manner and obdurate professionalism scare away even the most tolerant potential employers. Her agent is finally forced to present the unvarnished truth. Nobody will hire her. Nobody. Cut straight to our hero embracing a fraudulent change of identity that allows her to clandestinely exploit her talents.

Do you see where we're going with this? Can You Ever Forgive Me? accidentally (I'm guessing) follows the shape of Tootsie and – though it is ultimately a very different film – it does occasionally play like a comedy. That may be down to the casting. Melissa McCarthy excels as boozy Lee Israel, the real-life biographer of Estée Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead, who, in the early 1990s, launched a second career as a forger of literary correspondence.

McCarthy is in a different place. A versatile actor who was manoeuvred into comedy by accident, she takes on a figure of epic sadness

Richard E Grant is her even boozier, serially untrustworthy pal Jack Hock. An aftertaste of Withnail wafts about his performance. Some decades older than Grant's hitherto most famous creation, Jack offers an even more tragic depiction of alcoholism, but, like Withnail, he savours a cackle in the darkness. (A quick "chin-chin" before the clinking of glasses feels like an explicit nod towards the earlier roué.) The role is meant to be funny.


McCarthy is in a different place. A versatile actor who was manoeuvred into comedy by accident, she takes on a figure of epic sadness. Living alone and filthy with a cat called Jersey, Lee is in a constant battle with depression and with the indifference of others. She steals lavatory paper when attending a party hosted by her agent (a lovely, exasperated turn by Jane Curtin). She spends evenings on the couch watching 1940s movies with Jersey.

McCarthy is sufficiently smart to shrug off any inclination to clown, but a sense memory from earlier roles could have slipped palimpsests of absurdity beneath the character. (The part was originally intended for Julianne Moore, a very different actor.) What we get is a brilliant depiction of aggressive wit in the face of unjust misfortune. McCarthy invests Lee's poisonous quips with a savagery that never distracts from the misery that serves as their fuel.

Turtle-necked glory

Her disgust at the rising fame of Tom Clancy – briefly depicted in pompous, turtle-necked glory – is delightful to behold. As she drifts towards forgery, the film plays its moral hand with dexterity. There is no attempt to (ahem) forgive the offences. Dolly Wells has a good small role as a decent person damaged by the fraud. But we are allowed to celebrate Lee’s remote revenge on a universe that has failed to accommodate her unmistakable literary and rhetorical gifts. Lee derives intellectual pleasure from perfecting her epistolary ventriloquisms of Noël Coward and Katharine Hepburn. Jack has a lot of fun at the expense of a gullible city.

All this busy narrative is presented in an exquisitely decadent package that also accommodates meditations on Aids, addiction, queerness, misogyny and the erosion of bohemian character from Manhattan.

Following up the excellent Diary of a Teenage Girl, Heller conceals hard-boiled gobbets of repressed emotion in the corner of every scene. The perfect soundtrack merges smoky East Coast jazz with delicate orchestrations by the director's brother Nate Heller.

The compactness of Can You Ever Forgive Me? has invited inevitable, depressing under-appreciation. There has been a lot of talk about the two central performances – both McCarthy and Grant deserve the Oscars for which they are nominated – but little about the singularity of the film-making. It's a great New York movie. It's a great film about friendship. It's also a great cat movie (if that's your bag).

Opens February 1st.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist