I consider myself a writer. I may only be a writer of a modest movie blog, but the essence remains the same. No matter the outlet or the subject, the struggle, as they say, is still real. I still force deadlines upon myself, have standards I set for myself and often find myself staring at a blinking cursor on a blank computer screen, begging inspiration to hit. And when it does, and I have filled said screen with hundreds of words, I still find myself sometimes going back and reading what I wrote and been so appalled by the verbal flop sweat that has spewed out that I challenge the speed of the backspace button to the computer equivalent of the 5-second rule: if I can delete it fast enough, I can pretend I was never capable of producing such drivel. Such is the lonely and self-critical existence of the writer: no matter how famous, prolific or widely read, the torture remains.
And yet there are those moments, those fleeting, glorious moments, when the muse provides magnificent inspiration and the words flow easily and elegantly across the page. Like a marathon runner who hits their stride when the endorphins kick in, the pain and struggle evaporate and the magic takes over, and I can feel like Shakespeare—poetic, meaningful and witty. Those moments are what make it all worth it and they are the ones we writers are constantly seeking, like an addict chasing their high. But, for writers, there is no 12-step program for when we hit our wall. There is no substitute for that writer’s high of creating the perfect sentence or phrasing the perfect mood. And there is no cure for writer’s block.
Despite the isolation, loneliness and non-glamour of the writing profession, there have been hundreds of movies made about writers. (Of course there have—behind every movie is a writer who wants to share their pain!) Most of them portray writers as the complex and often bitter and lonely artists that they are—movies like As Good As It Gets, Barton Fink and Adaptation immediately come to mind. And now there’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a new movie from director Marielle Heller, starring Melissa McCarthy and written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Can You Ever Forgive Me? perfectly captures the agony of a writer’s life and manages, at the same time, to tell a story of desperation, human connection and professional survival.
It’s hard to like a movie about terrible people, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? manages it—and in spades. In this movie based on a true story, McCarthy plays cantankerous and reclusive writer Lee Israel, who had some success in the ‘80s writing biographies of peripherally-famous people. When the demand for biographies of vaudeville stars of the ‘20s dries up, Lee is forced to take odd jobs to pay the rent and struggles to get her agent to pay any attention to her. She becomes more and more desperate and decides to sell a note she received from Katharine Hepburn for some rent money. When she discovers there is a high demand for personal letters from famous dead people, she comes up with an idea to create forgeries and, it turns out, she’s pretty good at it. It’s not too much to spill the beans about the plot of this movie, not only because it’s all there in the trailer, but because the joy of this movie is in watching the whole thing unfold. You pretty much know everything is going to end badly, the fun is seeing exactly how it happens.
And what makes it all so enticing is the script and the performances from both McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, who plays Lee’s friend Jack, who she ropes into helping her with her scheme. Calling Jack her “friend” is even pushing it, as Lee and Jack are not only the oddest couple around, but seem more like two lost souls who crash into each other than human beings who have any affection for one another. Lee seems incapable of anything that would resemble a human emotion, and Jack seems to have an over-abundance of feelings. The only things they seem to have in common are their loneliness and their alcoholism. If it seems like this movie is dark, you’d be right. And that’s exactly what I loved about it.
McCarthy is absolutely spectacular as this grumpy, sad character who you desperately want to root for, but seems to have difficulty with the basic elements of humanity. You keep waiting for the moment when you can love her, but it never comes. It is so natural to root for redemption, but, with this character, I just rooted for more insight into her darkness, because McCarthy seemed so at home there. And yes, you read that right. This is the same Melissa McCarthy who is known for her broad physical comedies, the same McCarthy who has perfected the pratfall and the self-deprecating humor in many hit comedies, including Bridesmaids, Ghostbusters, Spy and The Heat. Even though she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Bridesmaids, this is her first dramatic role and if you ever doubted she had serious acting chops, I challenge you to see this movie. Like many other comic actors before her who surprised the world with their dramatic talents (Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg and Tom Hanks, to name just three), McCarthy disappears into this role and delivers a performance that is heartbreaking, tragic, complex and bold. McCarthy is so naturally likeable as a person and has made a career out of being America’s comic sweetheart, but in this movie she gets to really show another side and I for one enjoyed the hell out of it.
Richard E. Grant delivers a similarly powerhouse performance, as his energetic and passionate Jack is the emotional center of Can You Ever Forgive Me? Grant has had a long career, but this is the first time I have ever really liked him and I feel he is so good here that I hope Oscar remembers him in January. Grant’s performance is so vulnerable, so nuanced, so pathetic and so human, it makes the movie whole and serves as the perfect contrast and companion to McCarthy’s black hole of desperation. Writers Holofcener and Whitty craft a truly magnificent story of two hopeless people who find in each other a sort of purpose and a friendship neither one of them ever expected. It is sometimes tender, sometimes brutal, but always fascinating to watch.
Director Heller brings ‘90s New York City to full life, from Lee’s gritty apartment to the dungy neighborhood bar to the cozy and crowded bookstores, packed from floor to ceiling with dusty paperbacks. This movie made me long for the lost sanctuary of a bookstore and the beauty of handwritten letters. Yes, I am old enough to remember such things.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? was, for me, an incredibly well-written and well-acted movie about exactly how far desperation can take us and the humanity we struggle to find in ourselves and each other when our backs are to the wall. It isn’t the flashiest movie around, but it is rich in texture, character and story. All those things writers love.