A strange little film with an excellent cast and a decidedly downbeat atmosphere, I'm not sure who exactly Can You Ever Forgive Me? is meant to appeal to. Personally, I liked it, but with its quiet cringe and low-rent bitterness, I can't recommend it to everyone.
Melissa McCarthy has arrived at the stage of her career where she wants to shift from comedy to drama. In this case, I buy it – her best comedic performances have always had a sense of real anguish and insecurity to them, with McCarthy trading off her dowdy looks for both shock value and everywoman affability. But here she digs right into a stubbornly unlikable character with nary a wink to the camera. It works perfectly.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on a true story about celebrity biographer Lee Israel who, in 1991, was absolutely broke, and in her desperation turned to forging personal letters from literary giants such as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward, then selling them off to collectors' bookshops. It worked for a time, but you can see the Sword of Damocles hanging over Israel's head the moment she decides to go down this path. The film takes little joy in her small-time crimes; you know she's going to be caught, and you can't feel that bad for her when she is.
That Israel could make rent in her Manhattan apartment after getting $400 for some phony correspondence sure speaks volumes about a long-gone New York, especially the gay Greenwich Village/East Village scene, depicted here as a ghost town at the depths of the AIDS crisis. Everyone is dressed in dusty browns and grays. Sunlight is muted at best. Everyone reeks of alcohol. It's a grim place, far from the playground for tourists and the 1% that Manhattan is today.
Fortunately, Can You Ever Forgive Me? tempers its gloom with bitchy black humor, courtesy of a script by Nicole Holofcener (known for her own caustically witty films) and Avenue Q writer Jeff Whitty. McCarthy expertly walks a fine line between funny and bleak, and she is matched step by step by Richard E. Grant at his Richard E. Grantiest, playing Israel's flaky partner in crime Jack Hock. These are two marvelous performances, and they render this odd duck of film enjoyable.