Gripping, twisted, authenticated caper.
There’s a scene in Can You Ever Forgive Me? where a self-applauding prig boastfully tells fellow authors that he “doesn’t invest in the notion of writer’s block”. Those who have faced the crippling alpine abyss of the blank page will have to settle their mettle to suppress their fist launching through the screen; but crucially, this small moment puts you at level with our subject, who committed the greatest crime a writer can; blatant forgery and plagiarism.
Based on her confessional memoir, the film follows Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a struggling writer in a downward career spiral. A keen writer of biographies, she has seen success before, but now her work lies in local book shops at clearance prices. She can’t get an advance from her publisher on her new, barely-anticipated project; she’s behind on her rent for her bug-ridden, stinky apartment; and her cat, perhaps the only creature around that truly loves her, is sick. In a last-ditch effort to make some quick cash, she sells a cherished personal letter from Katharine Hepburn for a rather fetching price. As luck would have it, she comes across another letter from an author. But the book store can’t offer as much; “I could give more for better content” a shopkeeper says. The wheels begin to turn; Lee thinks if she adds a snappy post-script to letters, they’ll appear to be more personal and as such, be more valuable. And she’s right.
But this mild moral indiscretion evolves into full on fictional letters, Lee penning “real” correspondance from acclaimed writers and poets such as Dorothy Parker, and selling them across New York City. She runs into an old acquaintance, Jack Hock “big cock” (Richard E. Grant), and the pair spark up a criminal platonic relationship. Both of the actors have never been better. As a couple of investable miscreants, they’re irresistible. Grant particularly is marvellous in a personality packed performance, balancing vulnerability with roguish, street-smart charm. His unflappable deportment bounces cheekily off of McCarthy, who has evolved into quite the actress in a post-Bridesmaids world. Finely channeling her natural comic abilities, Lee is a figure demanding of more than well-performed gags. She’s terribly miserable, stuck in a semi-permanent rough patch with barely a will to act on. This essence of hopelessness (and through criminality, joy) is captured terrifically through McCarthy’s involving grasp of Lee’s outlook. She expresses her frustrated bemusement at the fact Tom Clancy gets paid $3 million, and tells of her general disdain of overly affectionate relationships.
In this regard Marielle Heller’s film is as much a fascinating biopic as it is a gentle portrait of loneliness. Jack ogles young men in bars and chats them up, but rarely taking things further than one night. Lee likes her alone time, barely sparking up any sort of an affair with anyone. It’s refreshing that the homosexual side is given a dual-portrayal; one is outrageously out-going, the other is warier. It’s unsurprising really that the writing is brimming with such humanity, considering those penning the screenplay; Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, the latter of which is more predominantly a playwright. They orchestrate these ferociously entertaining interactions between Jack and Lee that have more than one well-turned phrase. Jack says after a hard night on the booze: “I have a hangover that’s a real museum piece.”
But it’s not just the writing; Heller’s direction establishes clear moods and cohesive pacing, bringing the story together in a manner that feels engagingly authentic. It’s quite a cold looking movie, the briskness of the bar brushing over as well as the smell of cat poo under the bed. But alongside cinematographer Brandon Trost, she brightens debilitating scenes with expertly allusive lighting through dim lamps across different surroundings – never in doubt of how the audience should be feeling at a particular moment without manipulating their understanding. It’s only in the closing section of the movie when the inevitable coppers roll in that the grip loosens, as the story speeds along to a conclusion. But when Jack poignantly asks of Lee, “Just as long as you don’t make me sound stupid”, only the strongest curmudgeon can resist a bittersweet grin.
McCarthy and Grant give the performances of their lives in a fascinating literary crime saga that blends caustic wit and pathos with aplomb.
Cameron Frew – @FrewFilm