Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved
Call it a tale of two films. On the one hand, there are two comedic actors on screen, tempting one to begin laughter with every delivery, every facial expression, and more than a few movements. There are out-loud guffaws to be had. After all, this is Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, to say nothing of Jane Curtain and Ben Falcone, who are staples of both old and new comedy, respectively. But there is another film playing out simultaneously on the same screen with the same actors. The second film is one of profound heartbreak and devastation, wherein the same actors deliver a painfully true story that fills the viewer with pathos and empathy for characters that are on the edge of being villainous, so married are they to their self-interest.
McCarthy follows in a line of other comedians who have turned to more dramatic work and thus revealed unparalleled talent. Her portrayal of Lee Israel, a waning author at a crisis point and turning to crime and forgery to sustain a terribly lonely existence of alcohol and constant outbursts, is nothing short of incredible. Gone are the fast quips and sunny zingers we’ve come to know from the comedic titan, replaced instead by exasperation and a palpable feeling of one who is barely hanging on to anything they can grasp.
Her pairing with Grant brings out the best in both actors, as their interactions are so compelling, the viewer cannot turn away, and begins looking forward to when next the pair will get up to further shenanigans, despite the sad result of most of their characters’ schemes. The film serves as a inside look at the spiral downward, as McCarthy’s Israel continues to reach out for crazier and crazier schemes, taking wild risks to maintain what the film establishes as an awful status quo for the protagonist.
It’s hard to know what film each audience will see, as there are moments throughout, where one did not know whether to laugh or openly weep. Director Marielle Heller allows the film to linger in this nebulous space, between joy and sadness, to great effect. It’s a daring feat not easily accomplished and with a high potential to ruin the mood. Credit Heller and her actors that, at no point in the film is the audience anything other than riveted to their seats, desperate to know what happens next, and sympathizing, if not fully rooting for the most well-fleshed-out anti-heroes in recent cinema. At a film festival and conference that celebrates writers and storytelling above all other elements, such a claim is not granted cheaply. Still, Heller’s film earns any praise it will amass, and it should garner plenty.
The direction and performances, as well as the plot, certainly demand repeat viewings, if only to further discern whether it is comedy, tragedy, or some vibrant amalgam of both, but there is one thing that is never in doubt. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is one of the most emotionally engaging films this year and perhaps for a great many years before.