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Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy plays against type in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, an adaptation of Lee Israel's biography of the same name about her elaborate forgeries of letters from deceased poets and writers. A quiet, darkly funny and occasionally sad film from Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), Can You Ever Forgive Me? sees McCarthy play Israel and Richard E. Grant tackle the role of Israel's friend and con artist Jack Hock. An unlikable, socially awkward and generally irredeemable pair, Israel and Hock are nonetheless redeemed by the actors who play them, as McCarthy and Grant manage to find the humanity in two broken humans. McCarthy's subdued performance is worthy of the praise it got at year's end award ceremonies, and the film presents its larger-than-life story with satisfying subtlety.
Israel was a New York Times bestselling author and respected Esquire contributor, but in 1991 her career stalled after her biography of cosmetics czar Estee Lauder flopped. The movie picks up as Israel wants to pen a biography on Fanny Brice, an early 1900s comedic theater actress. Her attitude also needs an adjustment, and Israel's agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), tells her she cannot advance any more money until Israel starts being nicer to people. Unable to make ends meet, Israel sells a personal letter she received from Audrey Hepburn after she interviewed Hepburn shortly before the death of her partner Spencer Tracy in 1967. Israel likes the money and likes seeing book dealer Anna (Dolly Wells), so she returns with two letters written by Brice. Those don't fetch a high price due to the bland content, so Israel decides on a whim to add her own postscript to one letter. That partial forgery is quickly purchased, and Israel begins forging and selling letters from numerous deceased writers and celebrities, claiming each time that a relative asked her to help whittle down his personal collection. With the help of Hock, a drug dealer and disreputable swindler, Israel begins crafting more elaborate and valuable forgeries and takes her crimes on the road.
Neither Israel nor Hock is a good person. Israel lives in squalor, barks grouchily at everyone she sees and steals items from the coat check at a party at Marjorie's house. She is broken, confused about how to display both friendly and romantic affection and an all-day drinker. Anna tries to ask Israel out but Israel shies away into her frauds, crafting a fake letter from English playwright Noel Coward that is too forthcoming about his sexuality. This rings false to art and book dealers, and Israel begins to be blacklisted from trade shows. This sends her into library archives to steal and duplicate real letters she can sell. Brazen and emboldened by past success, Israel attracts the attention of the FBI.
McCarthy has found repeat success in broad comedy. I generally like the actress, but prefer her stronger films like Bridesmaids to junk like Life of the Party, and her performances are usually only as effective as the scripts supporting her films. The progression of events here is fairly standard, but the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty does a nice job adapting a wild true story without making Can You Ever Forgive Me? into some suave Ocean's 11 wannabe. Boozy scenes with Israel and Hock are funny but tinged in sadness, as Hock has come down from a cocaine high into homelessness. McCarthy is not totally unrecognizable here, but it's nice to see her tackling smaller, quieter material and giving the pratfalls a break. The film does not judge its protagonist, who finds some redemption at last, but sits back and allows the audience to weigh the value of friendship, honesty and forgiveness.
For some reason Fox decided to send only a DVD screener for review. I hadn't watched a DVD in several years, and was not super impressed at the drop in resolution. The 2.40:1 MPEG-2 anamorphic transfer offered OK detail and texture, somewhat bland colors and moderate black crush. There is some minor edge enhancement and jagged edges, but daytime shots are generally clear. I have moved on from SD, and I hope the studios will, too.
The English 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is fine. Light ambience surrounds the viewer and the dialogue is clear and well defined. Each element is mixed appropriately. Spanish and French stereo mixes are included, as are English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles.
The disc includes an Audio Commentary by Director Heller; Deleted Scenes (9:49); four Promotional Featurettes (6:15 total); and two Galleries.
This interesting adaptation of author and forger Lee Israel's autobiography stars Melissa McCarthy in the lead role, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? allows the actress to stretch her talents amid subtler-than-usual surroundings. I don't recommend purchasing a DVD version in 2019, but the film itself is Recommended.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.