When I finally got around to watching Can You Ever Forgive Me in cinemas I didn’t know it would be the last film I would watch before a forced sabbatical brought on by a draining cold that seemed to linger much longer than it should have, like an extended family member at a birthday party. However the period in between gave me time to contemplate what makes it special and while it might sound weird, out-of-place and just a little nonsensical, it’s because of how similar it is to Mad Max: Fury Road. While I let that sink in, here’s a little context.
Can You Ever Forgive Me tells the real life story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a struggling biography writer whose books aren’t paying the rent. When she stumbles across a letter written by famous actress Fanny Brice she learns how profitable letters of this nature are. As she begins to forge increasingly elaborate letters to make ends meet she also begins to enjoy herself as she forges a friendship with fellow grifter Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), one that will define both of them more than they even want.
Sounds nothing like George Miller’s action road movie right? While they both have vastly different plots and characters, Miller’s epic and director Marielle Heller’s small personal feature bond together over a simple notion. The concept that the outcasts and outliers are the best society has to offer, the heroes we didn’t know we wanted. These people, unfettered by societal norms, content to live life the way they want to are the people we want to know and want to be like, if only just a little bit.
Both Lee and Jack don’t conform to the idea of normal and that is why they captivate. Not only does Lee exist outside of the literary circles her agent wants her to join but she doesn’t belong to the simple restrictive definition of alcoholic. Her position in life, as well as Jack’s, gives them hidden complexity without trying. There is an intrinsic honesty to Lee that doesn’t mesh with others as they are intent on hiding away, hoping to get noticed by being the same. Lee and Jack aren’t seeking out a way to be special, they are people trying to exist and survive in a brutal city out to get them and that means they don’t prescribe to the bullshit platitudes that others thrive off of.
Heller plays this out by making New York an active participant in Lee’s story. The city here is one full of grit and grime. While the parts we thought we knew are full of disgusting banality, it is the dark recesses, the unseen corners that forgotten people live in that have the little known wonders. While Lee is content to sit in her vile apartment and stew over the state of her life, Jack drags her into the darkness, the places where they can be themselves more than the city everyone else thinks they know. In a city that looks like it is physically out to get you, Lee and Jack have transformed into survivors, two people hardened by a city that doesn’t give a toss about who they are or what they can do, much like they feel about the people around them. The city as well as their lives have made them the people they are today.
McCarthy and Heller have bound themselves to Israel’s story as they lean into her sharp, acerbic wit, trying to offset the more negative aspects of her personality, trying to make her more acceptable. The irony is it might be the most damaging part of Can You Ever Forgive Me? Lee doesn’t need her edges dulling, she needs to be unleashed and around the halfway point McCarthy takes the training wheels off and rampages through every mistake and regret with vigour. In a similar fashion, Richard E Grant makes the pitiable Jack Hock a fearless, shameless vault of fun. The perfect foil for the self involved Lee, Jack cares little for anything outside of living large and enjoying the company of whatever man floats his boat. It is Grant’s best role and all the accolades coming his way are greatly deserved.
But despite all the praise you can throw at Heller, McCarthy and Grant; this is Israel’s story and a call out to all the people hiding within themselves, afraid of the consequences of taking chances. Heller wants people to know that whatever they do, good or bad, it is the quiet introverts that can be truly special. Full of vicious comedy and some tragic storytelling, Heller’s film is about owning your self, whatever your reality is and not passing the responsibility of who you are onto others. Letting your outcast flag fly high is not a bad thing and thanks to an ending that is both precise and compelling we have been given a story about two pariahs making society work for them for a change while making a name for themselves at the same time and that for all its shock factor, is truly beautiful.