One of the biggest and strangest surprises of this Oscar year is how Marielle Heller’s brilliant, funny, accomplished Can You Ever Forgive Me had its momentum thwarted heading out of Telluride. It was as though the critics were somehow resentful that Heller was being so highly praised by non-critics that they had to correct that version of the only female director with a shot in the race and instead push the women they believed had made better films. And indeed, they pushed some great films, but Marielle Heller and her wonderful film got the shaft. It is easily one of the best films of the year, featuring arguably the best female performance of the year in Melissa McCarthy. The twosome of McCarthy and Richard E. Grant hold the film together with their co-dependent friendship. These are dwellers on the fringe of society, who have been mostly chewed up and spit out by the worlds they once inhabited. Much of it is self-inflicted isolation, as both haven’t the greatest history or reputation among their friends and colleagues. Somehow, they fumble towards each other to build a friendship for the ages.
Lee Israel, a once semi-important writer who has fallen on hard times. She doesn’t need anyone. She lives alone, drinks too much and has only one reliable relationship – with her beloved cat. Once the cat becomes ill, McCarthy must find a way to raise enough money to save the cat. Enter Richard E. Grant, who plays her partner in crime – literally – as the two pull off the expert forgery of such notables as Dorothy Parker. Israel boasts that she can do Parker better than Parker, and she probably can. Her letters always give the buyer what they’re actually seeking but rarely find – the quintessential writer as embodied in their otherwise mundane personal letters.
McCarthy is so good you almost forget how funny she has always been in the films she’s known for. And Heller’s directing is assured, never overstaying its welcome as it tells this breezy, sometimes sad, always memorable film.
Voters should not forget the acting, the writing and especially the directing.