“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a character study of a rotten individual

What are the lengths of your forgiveness? What if the person who betrayed you knew that what they were doing was wrong and did it anyway? What if they’re not even sorry? These are some of the questions “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” asks as it weaves a character study of an ornery curmudgeon who hurts everyone around her.

Written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and directed by Marielle Heller, the film tells the story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a down on her luck writer. She can’t get an advance from her publisher, her biographies aren’t making money anymore and it’s difficult for her to connect with anyone because she prefers cats to people. She befriends the witty, charismatic Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a fellow writer and an irresponsible drunk. As Lee’s situation worsens, she discovers the burgeoning world of collectible autographs, working with Jack to forge signatures and turning to a life of crime to just pay her bills.

Lee abuses everyone in her life throughout the course of the story. Jack, her publisher, her old partner, a potential new partner, bookstore owners… Everyone but her cat. She can’t stand other people’s feelings and inadequacies and doesn’t trust them. She also can’t open herself up and create lasting connections. It’s a testament to McCarthy that we feel sympathy for such an unlikable character. This is quite a different McCarthy than we’re used to: belligerent, hot-tempered, mean, closed off. She demonstrates a strong dramatic range in addition to her comedic talents.

Could we forgive her? The film lets us glimpse into Lee’s life to help us answer that question for ourselves, a benefit those in the film are not afforded. Knowing her situation, the pains she takes to avoid commitment and how often people betray her, can we forgive Lee for breaking the law, losing the trust of her friends and being an overall pain in the ass? Maybe.

It is a very well-acted film, specifically from McCarthy and Grant, two performances that make you care for them them, pity them and despise them all at the same time. The first act drags on a bit long with the same repetitive beats over and over, but it also serves to really let us into Lee’s life and shows her predicament. The middle and last act are slightly uneven as there are moments where the film really picks up and gets exciting and then moments of long pauses and introversion. But overall, it’s an interesting character study of a temperamental, antisocial woman who nevertheless deserves our empathy.

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