Find out why this Oscar nominated flick is still considered a hidden gem…
What is it about comedians ending up behind some of the best works of drama and horror these days? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying comedians are any less talented than non-comedy entertainers, but you’ve got to admit it feels strange each time it happens. Think of Jim Carrey’s dramatic roles like in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Jordan Peele’s modern horror classics Get Out and Us. Practically every major SNL cast member has done something steering closer to drama than comedy that’s often praised as their best work – Bill Hader in Barry; Pete Davidson in The King of Staten Island; Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller in Meyerowitz Stories; Bill Murray in Lost in Translation – the list goes on and on.
Which leads me to Melissa McCarthy’s own tragically under-watched contribution to the group, 2018’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, based on the memoir of the same name by biographer Lee Israel. Biographer, and eventual letter forger, the latter of which is what the plot revolves around – Israel’s fall from grace as a celebrated writer into financial ruin, turning to forging (and stealing) letters from famous authors by accurately imitating their writing style.
Calling this under-watched isn’t to say that people don’t like the film – on the contrary, McCarthy and her co-star Richard E. Grant were deservedly nominated for acting Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs, and the writers got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Despite this, not many people actually watched it – it barely made its $10 million budget back at the box office, and I’m yet to encounter someone else in real life who’s seen it (besides those I’ve forced to watch it under threat; it’s OK they agreed with me in the end).
Those people (AKA most of you), are missing out. McCarthy absolutely disappears into the curmudgeonly role of Israel from the first scene; her physicality and tone is so complete that you only get the chance to be wowed at her portrayal once the credits roll and the illusion is over. Richard E. Grant simultaneously pulls off absolutely charming and completely pitiful as drinking buddy and partner-in-crime Jack Hock. They expertly tightrope walk a tone that is equal parts cheekily funny and quietly sad.
Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty more than earned their Oscar nods with some pitch-perfect characterisation. Israel and Hock are, to me, the most compelling of literary characters – they are flawed, fatally so, and in ways they are fully aware of, and yet they are completely sympathetic. They struggle not with gods and monsters but with their own pride in the face of a reality that changed and left them behind. It may be hard to respect them for their crimes and caustic natures, but it’d be harder not to empathise with them for their disillusionment with a crapsack world. I’ve also got to give a huge hand to them for a story where all three main characters are queer and the plot isn’t about dealing with being queer (they’re just gay and it’s fine), and two are women who laugh in the face of the Bechdel Test.
So why did it slay with the critics but not reach every audience and become a respected household name? A comparison for the film that feels appropriate is Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, released 16 years earlier. Both are crime biopics with sympathetic protagonists based on famous fraudsters. Forgive Me? is essentially Catch Me for introverts. Here’s the thing – I’m not exaggerating when I say that Forgive Me? is better in almost every metric.
I say almost because there’s one thing it couldn’t possibly win on, and it’s the one thing that prevented it from being universally adored – the subject matter. It’s just a fact that a rise and fall story of a young white man (played by 20-something Leonardo DiCaprio, no less) using his ingenuity to con airlines (who don’t have the best reputations) and live an enviously lavish lifestyle, travelling the world and evading the police at every turn, is going to have more mass appeal. How can the story of an old alcoholic cat-lady who just about makes rent by selling forged letters of 20th century playwrights you’ve never heard of ever hope to compete?
Spielberg knows how to dazzle, undoubtedly, and he plays up the dashing rogue type in Frank Abagnale to the point where you don’t even think of him as in the wrong. I do love that film, it’s supremely entertaining from start to finish, but can I relate to Abagnale? He never struggles with anything, and his criminal motivations are shallow at best, amounting to little more than ‘I want to be rich’. There are real human emotions on display in Forgive Me? that Catch Me never gets close to. Director Marielle Heller grounds everything in the mundane struggles of real life – the struggle to balance passions and financial demands, the struggle to play nice with people you don’t respect, the struggle to admit that it might not be everyone else who’s wrong – and those are the things that’ll leave a movie in the back of your mind long after it’s over.Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of those movies, and that alone would make it deserving of your time. It being an uncommonly nuanced portrayal of LGBTQ+ characters, an incredibly well-told story, and a showcase for Melissa McCarthy’s immense talent – well they’re just cherries on the cake.