Justice is served - twice - by Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Melissa McCarthy, whose talent was spent thanklessly on two variable 2018 comedies (click here and here), lands a bitterly humorous leading role that demonstrates her range and depth as an actress. And Richard E. Grant, the much-loved Brit too often wasted in minor roles, is given proper room to show off as her flamboyant but shady pal. It's not their chemistry alone that makes this real-life story so special, but the pairing is inspired - more than vindicating the film's place in my 2019 Most Anticipated list.
Marielle Heller's literary drama is based on the story of biographer Lee Israel, who used unscrupulous means in the early '90s to escape from the financial rut into which she'd fallen. With her writing no longer in vogue and her abrasive personality having alienated everyone she knows (agent included), Lee is scrabbling to pay her rent and can't even afford veterinary care for her ailing cat. Casting around for an alternative source of income, she discovers how much collectors are willing to pay for literary artifacts, such as letters from celebrated wits like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. And if the artifacts aren't readily available, then she has the writing flair to conjure them into existence. Her one friend and confidant in this counterfeiting enterprise is Jack Hock (Grant), a barfly and a con-artist in his own right, who she finds quite willing to aid and abet her.
It's McCarthy who provides the initial hook for this curious tale. Dowdy, dour and permanently marinaded in alcohol, Lee is still someone we root for, due to the humanity and quiet desperation the celebrated comedian brings to the role. She's snarkily funny too, even her most reprehensible behaviour summoning up audience laughter. But the movie really hits its stride when she strikes up her unlikely friendship with Jack. Some have labelled the raffish old soak as a mature version of Grant's classic Withnail and I character; in fact Jack is more life-affirming and good-humoured than Withnail ever was, even if he's every bit as feckless. The relationship between the two is flawed, hilarious and at points oddly touching. It clicks from the moment they meet and as screen friendships go is irresistible - the bruised heart and soul of this undeniably strange story.
But credit is due elsewhere too. The leads bounce off a screenplay that's worthy of the iconic writers imitated by Lee; hers and Jack's dialogue is thick with acidic wit throughout. Heller's direction is smart and restrained, enhancing the performances shot by sweetly-judged shot, and the whole thing is edited to a tee. There's a nifty soundtrack too, perfectly complimenting the bohemian literary New York setting (listen out for a neat use of Paul Simon's I Can't Run). It all enhances the subterfuge part of the plot, Lee's illegal dealings - however small-scale compared with say Ocean's 8 - summoning up an uneasy buzz of excitement.
If the film works well as a mini crime-drama, it succeeds ever more as a portrait of isolation and thwarted ambition. The ease with which writer and conman fall into friendship underscores how lonely each of them is, while Lee's acts of forgery are as much an attempt to satisfy her creative urge - to exercise the talent that has always defined her - as to pay the bills. Every tragi-comic moment is crafted beautifully and with no trace of false sentiment, making this a vastly more universal story than its subject-matter might suggest. And at the centre of it are those two great talents, getting to show exactly what they can do given classy material. Lee and Jack are unarguably dreadful people - but thanks to McCarthy and Grant, you'll find yourself starting to love them.
Memorable Moment: Prank phone-calls really shouldn't be this much fun.
Ed's Verdict: 9/10. Made with supreme confidence by all concerned, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a subtle, character-driven delight. Its Oscar noms are well-deserved, but shouldn't the director have one too?