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« TIFF Review: "Widows" | Main | Burning, The Cakemaker and more join the Foreign Film Race. »
Sunday
Sep092018

Queer TIFF: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

by Chris Feil

Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the rarest of comedies, as lovely as it is scabrous, and able to craft a film cohering as many dualities and tonal contradictions in its construction as its protagonist. The film stars Melissa McCarthy as the shamed Lee Israel, once noted biographer and journalist whose late career stumbles found her forging letters of noted dead writers and famous personalities.

Heller has made a fantastic follow-up to her debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl, one that further establishes her as one of our most inquisitive storytellers detailing the interior lives of complicated women. Forgive is both sober and dotted with understated longing, painting its antihero as one with a tricky relationship with her own need to be understood. Frequently reduced or disregarded (especially by her agent played by the exacting Jane Curtin) for her bite, don’t misinterpret Israel as someone who’s really just wanting some cuddly sentiment. She’s tough and over it before you even start; she’s cutting but still human.

Israel had made a career of hiding behind her subject, devoting her voice to platforming another. Her forgeries become their own creative outlet, a performance art that outdoes the personalities she’s mimicking better than they could have themselves. When Israel’s buyers marvel at the authorial voice coming through, it’s a gratification she couldn’t receive when devoting herself to simply detailing another life, or at least one that has flown out of reach. Never moreso than Dolly Wells’ Anna, the woman she pines for that she also deceives with her schemes, and someone who seems to appreciate all of her rougher textures.

As Lee Israel, McCarthy plays her gruff nature and loneliness as a landscape of peaks and sudden valleys, with her grievances both petty and just revealing a complex and uncompromising woman. The actress is true to the Israel form, never asking for sympathy or forgiveness for what some will find to be her more abrasive aspects or frustrating inconsistencies. Fuck “likeable” full-stop, particularly when McCarthy can make a complex woman like Israel become so knowable despite her many walls, and do so with hilarious ease.

Opposite McCarthy is Richard E. Grant as her co-conspirator and even more criminally misbehaving friend Jack Hock. Grant is devilishly funny and like a blowtorch to McCarthy’s acid, revealing a Jack that stifles his sadness and lies even better than his Israel does. Their onscreen connection becomes one of the more moving and intricately realized representations of queer friendship onscreen in some time, navigating their mutual affection across shared language of cutting barbs and protection from the outside - though neither can protect the other from themselves.

And their affection is all the dosage the film needs to balance its bitter melancholy. Heller is nostalgic here, delivering an early 90s New York City that feels both unflashily precise in period detail but tonally trapped in the bluesy past, just as Israel is in her writing subjects and stunted disposition. She calls her old girlfriend (played by surprise cameo player) frequently, calling back to a past that never made her as happy as the Blossom Dearie underscoring suggests. And all along, that bruised yourning lingers in McCarthy’s eyes.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? consistently surprises with character depth and simple relaxed watchability, showcasing the great McCarthy and Grant and reestablishing Heller as one of our emergent, holistic American storytellers.

Grade: A-

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Reader Comments (21)

But how is the cat?

Thank you for reviewing this. This may be my #2 film for fall (behind A Star Is Born). Not only am I excited to see Marielle Heller build on her career, I'm so happy for McCarthy - I've always been a huge fan, even though her films sometimes don't serve her well. It is great to see Richard E. Grant back with a major role, too, and judging from his social media posts, he is loving it.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Oscar chances? McCarthy?

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPatagonia

Best Actress race this year is going to be like the Hunger Games.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBJT

Wow, you are really making me want to see this. I saw "Diary of a Teenage Girl" and was blown away by it, so I'm excited to know that Heller has made such an accomplished follow up.
Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are a match made in heaven.
That Oscar race just got more interesting.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

So we are looking at Close, GaGa, Coleman, McCarthy, and X?

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJAL

Best Actress tier 1 (likely): Close + Coleman

Duking it out for remaining spots: Kidman, McCarthy, Mulligan, Moore, Collette, Davis, Portman & Gaga. BRUTAL and it’ll get worse as more films are seen

Current Predictions:
> Close
> Coleman
> Mulligan
> McCarthy
> Collette

but damn, could be any of the above ladies. Close, Portman, Collette, Coleman and Mulligan are all getting career-best type of reviews and given the number of amazeballs performances in their respective filmographies already, that type of praise is shocking so that could be our 5 right there. regardless this will be a stacked year; I love it.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterhuh

Close / Kidman / Davis
In that order

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

Wrong again. Kidman and Davis are not happening for their gun films. They will be lucky to get Globes nominations.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJF

Would love to see Colman get in. Close is the only lock. I see Collette, Kidman & probably McCarthy as the other 3, with Gaga getting snubbed.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBruno

I love the overhype and people claiming they know all before these films open to the public,guilds which can sway lots of things.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

A. Terrific review.

B. I did not know this was Heller. I adored Diary... and thus now jumps up the list.

C. This fall is pleasantly diffuse with many interesting candidates.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

Doesn’t America’s Mom Julia Roberts also expect a nomination for “Ben is Back”?

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSister Rona Barrett

Collette is not getting nominated in this tough field. Hereditary isn't Get Out, either financially or in terms of critical acclaim, and a genre film needs to be that beloved in order to get a high-profile Oscar nod. It's going to be hard for Kidman for the same reason. Widows may have some juice, though - it seems big with critics and could be a huge hit. We'll see.

Mulligan is seeming to fade away as usual.

I'll be surprised if Colman doesn't go Supporting because she has a strong chance to win there.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

I definitely want to see this as I like Melissa McCarthy and am glad she's given the chance to do other things. Plus, I love The Diary of a Teenage Girl.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Is Stenberg in the mix? I've only seen very positive things about Hate U Give.

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBJT

I'm so happy to hear this is great. Whoever did the trailer though needs to be fired, it looked so drab and snoozy. Should've guessed the director of The Diary of a Teenage Girl would deliver.

Also re: the awards chatter above. Is Close really a lock? I just don't see that when her film appears to be such a non-contender surrounded by actresses who have films that will be so much more more widely seen?

September 9, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Colman will probably go supporting to secure the win
Davis and Kidman star in films that only rarely get Best Actress nominations
Portman's film doesn't have the support + it could flop
Mccarthy could be overlooked if the film is considered a light comedy
Toni Collette and the film won't be remembered apart from a screenplay nomination
Mulligan's film seems to be another Carey vehicle that could but didn't
The only locks are Gaga and Close

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterDg

I bet it'll be Gaga/Close/Kidman/McCarthy and then Stone or Davis in the final spot.

Close is far from a done deal...sight unseen, I can imagine Gaga conquering the conversation. I see Kidman occupying the Blanchett/Carol position of "undeniably incredible but not gonna win."

The Help casts such an absurdly long shadow over subsequent actress races.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterHayden

Nobody is a lock. This category is sooo competitive.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Only Close is a lock.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

Considering how much critics seem to want to make it happen, only Gaga is a lock.

September 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

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