Director Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? successfully surmounts one of the most unassailable feats in cinema — creating sympathy for an unlikely, and often unlikable, protagonist — and does so while gracefully avoiding the minefield of cliches and tired tropes that typically plague its subgenre. Most films “based on a true story” can never fully shake off the inherent artifice of their medium. Narratives are streamlined, characters are overpolished and underdeveloped, and all too often, excessive license is taken with the facts. But in the case of Heller’s film, the process of fictionalization has created a heightened sense of reality that perfectly mirrors its subject matter, resulting in a movie that evokes a sense of emotional truth through a story about lies.
Working from a script by New York indie scene stalwart Nicole Holofcener adapted from the memoir of Lee Israel, Heller has crafted a modest film that mines deception for veracity. Israel’s story is salacious enough — an author on the wrong side of marketability turns to forging ephemera related to celebrities and literary figures in order to make ends meet — and while it may not sound particularly cinematic, in Heller’s hands it becomes something more than the sum of its parts. Holofcener’s tightly structured script focuses on Israel’s interiority, revealing character through action rather than directly expositing her psychological turmoil. This allows Heller to build tension gradually and form a solid story basis, with her often claustrophobic framing complementing the narrative noose that tightens around Israel’s neck.
As sharp as the scripting and direction are, none of this would work without the right actress in the lead, and Melissa McCarthy is pitch perfect as Israel. Her performance here is so good that I almost feel bad for all the bad things I’ve said about her over the years. (Almost.) Maybe she was just waiting for the right role — and if so, this is definitely it. Her portrayal of Israel builds pathos without overreaching, a welcome surprise given the fact that “subtlety” is not a word I would ever have used in relation to Melissa McCarthy. She’s ably supported by Richard E. Grant as a flamboyant hustler roped into Israel’s scheme, and the two share an affable chemistry that’s a delight to watch even as things inevitably turn ugly.
It’s perhaps that very inevitability that makes Can You Ever Forgive Me? such a remarkable little film — we know that things will end badly for Israel, but we want to root for her anyway. This woman is clearly a sociopath, but when she steals a coat from a party full of obnoxious literary dilettantes, who can blame her? When she’s finally held to account for her crimes, it’s hard to judge her when she confesses that her forgeries were the first writing she had ever really been proud of. Heller and Holofcener capture perfectly the soul-crushing desperation of trying to eke out a living as a creative in a place like New York, and McCarthy sells it with a pleasantly unexpected effortlessness. Israel herself may have been an unrepentant sinner, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? has nothing to apologize for.