Making movies about unlikable characters is a tricky tightrope to walk. Flawed characters are often interesting, but if a character is too repellent it can make the audience resent spending time with him/her. Can You Ever Forgive Me? navigates those challenging waters skillfully.
Director Marielle Heller’s film is based on a true story. Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a formerly successful writer of celebrity biographies who has fallen on hard times in early 1990s New York City. Some of her misfortune stems from her functional alcoholism and seriously abrasive personality. To raise money to pay for vet bills for her cat, she sells a signed letter Katherine Hepburn sent her while the two were working together. Eventually, she gets the idea to forge letters from other celebrities to make money.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? plays as part caper film, part character study. McCarthy turns in a strong performance as the lead. It’s nice to see her stretching beyond the standard comedic roles she has been given over the years. Richard E. Grant is, as always, a welcome presence as Israel’s dissolute friend and eventual accomplice. Since so much of the movie is watching them bounce off each other, it would have failed miserably if they did not have good chemistry. But they do. They make you want to keep following them in the movie even if you would not want to be in the same room as those characters in real life.