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TIFF Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me? – “Melissa McCarthy delivers her best performance to date”

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At a literary party close to the beginning of Can You Ever Forgive Me? an author comments that he doesn’t believe in writer’s block, that is just an excuse for laziness.  But for Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), that stumbling block is only too real.  Though she has already had a biography on the New York Times Bestseller list, her current project, the story of Fanny Brice, has stalled and has been discouraged by her agent (Jane Curtain).  Trying to get money to help her sick cat (a being she admits to liking more than people), she sells a letter from Fanny that she finds while doing research at the public library to a used book shop.  Discovering that these items can bring in big money and in desperation for capital, she starts forging letters from people like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker to pay off her debts.

The premise seems too preposterous to be true, but it is.  In fact, Israel’s own book Can You Ever Forgive Me: Memoirs of a Literary Forger was the basis of the film and adapted to the screen by Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener (also at the festival having directed The Land of Steady Habits).  Their sharp writing provides good material for McCarthy, who should be grateful for this film rescuing her from recent duds like The Happytime Murders.  In Forgive Me she delivers her best performance to date, capturing the brash, detached, and caustic nature of Lee, yet still making her likeable.  She’s helped by her one on one banter with Richard E. Grant, playing an equally down on his luck drinking buddy who becomes part of her ploy.

Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) is finding solid footing with her second feature film making her an exciting young director to watch.  Just as Lee Israel uses the letters to find her voice, Heller is certainly finding hers.  The director deftly creates the world of 1990’s New York which, like Lee, is adorned in shades of brown and a little unkempt.  Her sympathetic direction as well as McCarthy’s portrayal provides this biopic the much needed emotional depth it requires to succeed.

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