fri 14/06/2024

Can You Ever Forgive Me? review - no page unturned in a comedy about literary forgery | reviews, news & interviews

Can You Ever Forgive Me? review - no page unturned in a comedy about literary forgery

Can You Ever Forgive Me? review - no page unturned in a comedy about literary forgery

Fake it 'til you make it: Oscar-tempting tour de force by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant

Melissa McCarthy as counterfeit genius, Lee Israel: 'I'm a 51-year-old woman who likes cats more than people'

What is it with all these new films based on biographiesVice, Green Book, The Mule, Stan & Ollie, Colette… and that’s before we even get to the royal romps queening up our screens.

At least Can You Ever Forgive Me? brings a lifestory to the cinema which isn’t too familiar to audiences outside literary America. It’s based on the autobiography of a professional biographer, Lee Israel, who made her living writing about people like Katherine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead before coming a cropper on an unauthorised account of Estée Lauder and ending up broke and desperate.  

Alone with her sick cat and rejected by her agent (a vicious portrait by Jane Curtin), Lee Israel took to forging juicy letters by her literary and screen heroes: Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Louise Brooks and Ernest Hemingway. Sold to greedy dealers in memorabilia, she made a tidy living and relished fooling the experts with witty impersonations of famous voices which she hacked out on antique typewriters. Lee died in 2014 but her 2008 memoir has now been turned into a charming movie that is really an Oscar-hailing vehicle for two outstanding actors, Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant (pictured below) as Lee’s friend and accomplice Jack Hock.

Grant plays a bigger role in the film of Can You Ever Forgive Me? than the real-life character who died of AIDS in 1994. Pumping up Jack Hock's part gives screenwriters Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener (who was going to direct with Julianne Moore in the lead) full reign to indulge in some splendidly barbed dialogue between the two leads. It’s a classic odd-couple comedy with some real pathos hidden between the quips. Lee Israel was a lesbian and Jack Hock was gay but the film-makers don’t make too much of their sexuality, it just adds to their outsider status and combative friendship. A possible romance for Lee with Anna, a friendly book dealer (Dolly Wells) fizzles out before it sparks and Hock while obviously far more active in the bedroom, doesn’t always exercise the best judgement.Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?Marielle Heller (who wrote and directed The Diary of a Teenage Girl) has done a lovely job of recreating New York in the early 1990s; many of the drinking scenes are set in Julius, one of the city’s last remaining gay bars and Lee’s fly-infested walk-up on 83rd Street is disgustingly credible. Marie Kondo would be horrified if she saw it, but doubtless approve of the scene where Jack cleans out the festering cat turds under Lee’s bed. As an actor herself, Heller knows when to let McCarthy and Grant let rip and they reward their director with two of the best performances of their careers. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a caustic riposte to the gentility of that other bookish buddy film, 84 Charing Cross Road, but it shares some of the same DNA and will appeal to anyone with a literary bent as well as those looking for some grandstanding acting. But please can we have some films soon that aren’t based on memoirs? 

It’s a classic odd-couple comedy with some real pathos hidden between the quips


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to

Thank you for continuing to read our work on For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters