Telluride Review: ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ Sees McCarthy Forge Ahead in the Oscar Race


2018 TELLURIDE FILM FESTIVAL: Based on the memoir by Lee Israel, Marielle Heller’s (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) sophomore effort, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” quickly became one of the more buzzed-about films after making its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.

Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, an unkempt and surly biographer who had previously made the New York Times best-seller list, but has since been down on her luck. The projects she tries to send her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin) – including a biography on vaudeville star Fanny Brice – are not exactly the type of idea that will make the publishing company money, and thus Marjorie stops returning Lee’s calls.

Lee is an alcoholic who can’t hold down a job and is falling behind on all her bills. She tries to exchange some of her old books to a local bookstore for spare cash, though the return is meager and lacking. Eventually, Lee makes the tough decision to sell a personal letter written to her by Katharine Hepburn and brings in a more substantial amount for the keepsake. While researching her subject at the library, Lee finds a letter that Fanny Brice once wrote stuck between the pages of a book. She surreptitiously takes the letter to see if she can get anything for it. Collectors, however, seem uninterested in the relic, as it lacks any panache, and Lee is only offered $75 in return. She makes the fateful choice to add a little razzle-dazzle of her own in a postscript on the letter to spice it up and increase its value. This, of course, works, and she sells the new version for $350. Desperate to make ends meet, she, and her new (and only) friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), concoct a plan to forge marvelously imaginative letters from deceased, legendary writers, and pass them off as memorabilia to collectors and dealers.

But the fun can only last so long, and soon enough, the FBI begins to take an interest in the letters she is selling. As the noose tightens around the duo, Lee and Jack only grow more daring and reckless with the crime they are committing.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a most pleasant surprise, a caustically witty entry, here at Telluride, that acts as part buddy-film, a part allegory on loneliness. Heller and her team of writers (Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty) are able to weave their wistful subject matter into a thoroughly appetizing film. One that should be very popular with audiences this fall.

When asked what she loved about portraying Lee, McCarthy stated that she is always attracted to flawed characters with redeemable qualities. She loved how incredibly witty Lee could write, and yet be so antisocial. That irony really drew her to the role. When asked what she felt pulled the reclusive Lee to the eccentric Jack, McCarthy added “They’re both such a study in loneliness. Jack was a curiosity to her, and fascinating enough for her to let her guard down. It’s such a beautiful love story between two friends.”

“Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a wholly authentic fable about inauthenticity and solitude. Melissa McCarthy knocks the cover off the ball and is as vivid and exuberant as she’s ever been. She somehow finds a way to take such an angry and narcissistic character and make us cheer for her. I believe she will be a major contender for the Lead Actress Oscar this year. Richard E. Grant nearly steals the show and is equal of commendation, likely to receive Supporting Actor consideration for his outrageous performance. The captivating pair really made this film an earnestly delightful experience. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is not to be missed.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is distributed by Fox Searchlight and opens on Oct. 19.

GRADE: (★★★½)

Be sure to check out the Official Oscar Predictions Page to see where “CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?” ranks among the contenders!