TIFF Review: ‘CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?’ a dull attempt at portraying an undesirable character

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James Cole Clay // Film Critic

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Rated R, 107 minutes.
Director: Marielle Heller
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky and Jane Curtin

The brand of Melissa McCarthy has gained her worldwide fame. Her style of comedy has appealed to the masses for the better part of a decade by this point. As she has churned out movies at a brisk pace (not quite that of Adam Sandler), all of her roles seem to blend together. Every movie is a rendition on the ugly side of American humor. From THE HEAT to THE HAPPYTIME MURDERS, each have been a commercial success, but creatively bankrupt.

With Marielle Heller (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL) directing McCarthy, and screenwriter Nicole Holofcener (ENOUGH SAID) putting words in her mouth, it appeared CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? was going to be a change of pace for the lovable star. Unfortunately, there’s no distinguishing marks that set this performance apart from her previous work, other than the distributor is boutique studio Fox Searchlight and she speaks a little bit softer.

The story profiles Lee Israel (McCarthy), a celebrity biographer whose work is outdated and underappreciated. Even though she’s a New York Times best-selling author, she struggles to get a return phone call from her agent (Jane Curtin) and has resorted to a job as a data processor.

Her life is utterly pathetic. She always has a glass of scotch in her hand. Heller and McCarthy hardly makes her a character we’d want to spend any time with. The story is presented as a tale of redemption rather than a study of a person whose life was stranger than fiction.

Melissa McCarthy in the film ‘CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?’ Photo by Mary Cybulski. © 2017 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Drinking one day, she runs into an old cohort, Jack (Richard E. Grant), and they share their troubles with life on the fringe. New York is a city that once felt alive to the duo, but how are they supposed to cope when the city has no more room left for them?

The crux of the film is that Lee uses her typewriter to forge loads of old letters from vaudeville stars of yesteryear and selling them to high-profile dealers for modest amounts of cash. Lee and Jack pay rent and live it up a bit, but mostly booze.

Holofcener’s work typically has a bite like black licorice, with a wit that charms. In CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, however, all of that is non-existent. It’s a shell of what has put her on the map as one of the wittiest screenwriters in Hollywood.

Heller is a notable director in her own right. Her debut film, THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL, was a knockout that managed uncomfortable tones and characters with the greatest of ease. It was a stunning achievement, while this is a step in a more stuffy direction.

There has been a lot of awards chatter surrounding McCarthy and Grant for this movie, with many praising their dynamic. But really, none of that shows on the screen. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? is a misguided and, frankly, dull attempt at framing an undesirable character.

Grade: C+

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? premiered on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018. The Toronto International Film Festival has an encore screening on 9/15. Visit tiff.net for more details on the showtimes. CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? will release on Oct. 19, 2018 through Fox Searchlight Pictures.

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.