Can You Ever Forgive Me? – for being an average film?

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The start of the new year brings with it the hype for the Academy Awards, the perfect opportunity for cinephiles everywhere to complain about the nominations and winners from a list of films that are (mostly) forgotten by the time the hype for next year’s ceremony starts up. The problem with reviewing an Oscar bait film – which basically is a genre these days – is that the phrase ‘perfectly competent if unremarkable’ is often all I have to say. Enter Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a perfectly competent if unremarkable biopic that ticks enough of the right boxes to ensure it gets a few nominations, in this case actress, supporting actor and adapted screenplay.

The film follows struggling author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) who, with the assistance of the eccentric Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), attempts to salvage her career by forging letters from deceased authors and playwrights and selling them to collectors. If you’re going into this film expecting a typical Melissa McCarthy comedy then prepare to be disappointed. While there are occasional uses of dark comedy, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a drama through and through, and McCarthy does a commendable job in the lead role. It’s a surprisingly restrained performance, and while I feel it has been overhyped by critics because it’s a comedic turned dramatic actor – hardly an uncommon occurrence – it’s still worthy of praise.

Unfortunately for McCarthy she is frequently overshadowed by co-star Richard E. Grant in one of the most enjoyable supporting performances in years. He is the clear highlight of the film, and his presence is sourly lacked whenever he’s not onscreen.

It’s sad that McCarthy and Grant’s performances are in service of an otherwise aggressively mediocre film. There are serious pacing issues on display as the film rushes through act one to get to its central premise, leading to almost every scene feeling too short; the opening feels like a three-minute scene cut down to one, for example. Even when Israel starts forging letters it comes pretty much out of nowhere. There’s no clear moment when we see the gears turning in her head as she decides to do this, she just sits down at a typewriter and does it. For most of the runtime the film seems to be making her as unlikeable as possible, which could have been an interesting direction to take if the ending didn’t suddenly try to make her sympathetic, leading to a jarring change in tone.

It might sound odd to criticise a biopic as predictable, but even to someone who was unaware of Lee Israel prior to this film it’s painfully obvious where this story is going. All the story beats, from her failing to achieve her dream as a writer to her inevitable falling out with Hock, felt so artificial I couldn’t not roll my eyes when they happened. The film comes alive when the FBI investigation starts but it comes so late in the runtime it’s resolved almost as soon as it’s introduced.

The term Oscar bait has received criticism for being overused to the point of meaninglessness, although I agree to an extent there are some films that fit the term perfectly. Despite director Marielle Heller’s best intentions, she’s unable to escape the trappings of the paint-by-numbers script she was given (this is a film that reveals crucial plot details via text during the end credits). Can You Ever Forgive Me? is by no means a bad film but it is an incredibly average one, and worth a look for the central performances alone.

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