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“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” deliciously pairs Richard E. Grant with Melissa McCarthy

Lovable characters don’t always have to be likable. In the case of Can You Ever Forgive Me, you can make the case that our two main characters are fairly bad people. At the same time, you do quickly come to care deeply for them. That’s a credit to lead Melissa McCarthy, as well as Richard E. Grant, who arguably steals the show. This true life dramedy mines some occasionally grimy territory, but the two actors consistently rise above it all. One could make the case that both are doing their career best work here. Hitting theaters this week, this Fox Searchlight film might be an Oscar force to be reckoned with. More on that later, but this is quite a good flick.

The movie is a biographical dramedy, adapting Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name. Lee (McCarthy) used to be a successful author, known for disappearing into the her biographies. However, times have changed and she can’t get work. Close to homelessness, she inadvertently stumbles upon a way to make money. Buyers pay good money for personal letters from famous figures. Lee can assume their voice with ease, so with a little forgery, suddenly she’s in possession of tons of valuable correspondence. With no friends except fellow barfly Jack Hock (Grant), she slowly clues him in to her scheme. Soon, they’re a burgeoning criminal enterprise. Of course, all good things must come to an end, and when things crumble, boy do they ever. Marielle Heller directs an adaptation penned by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, while the supporting cast includes Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Dolly Wells, and more. Nate Heller composes the score, while the cinematography comes from Brandon Trost. It’s solid work all around behind the scenes, effectively evoking its New York setting.

Grant and McCarthy are well on their way to deserved Academy Award nominations for their full bodied work here. The film is sturdy in terms of its writing and direction, but is truly elevated by the pair. Heller rightly lets them spread their wings and fly. McCarthy has moments of comic relief, but it’s often a desperate performance. This is a woman on the verge of spiraling to rock bottom, and we always feel it. As for Grant, he’s a scene stealer, often in broadly comedic terms, but there’s a tragedy to him as well. Frankly, his work is the epitome of what Best Supporting Actor was made for. It would be shocking not to see him cited. The competition will partly determine what happens with McCarthy, but more on that next.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? should have its sights set on some major Oscar contention. Look for Fox Searchlight to give this one a hearty campaign, focused on Best Picture, Best Actress (for McCarthy), Best Supporting Actor (for Grant), and Best Adapted/Original Screenplay (for Holofcener and Whitty), depending on category placement. If voters go crazy over it, you could even see a scenario where Best Director (for Heller) is in play. Grant in Supporting Actor seems like the surest bet, with McCarthy in Actress also being pretty likely to happen. Everything else just depends on how the precursor season goes. Searchlight also has The Favourite to push (hold that thought), so it remains to be seen if both are Picture worthy. They have the goods though, it’s just a matter of properly mounting a campaign.

It’s worth considering whether Fox Searchlight will be able to properly split their attention between Can You Ever Forgive Me? and their other major contender, The Favourite. Hell, they’re also giving an awards play to Isle of Dogs. That being said, Searchlight should be able to thread the needle here. The Favourite is their across the board player, but they can easily market this as a smaller, yet equally important, contender. If they can, the movie will do just fine. Time will tell, but if you’re a better, don’t bet against the studio. They know what to do with films of this ilk.

As a bonus, here are what I consider to be McCarthy’s ten best performances to date:

10. The Boss
9. Ghostbusters
8. The Happytime Murders
7. This Is 40
6. The Heat
5. Spy
4. The Nines
3. St. Vincent
2. Can You Ever Forgive Me?
1. Bridesmaids

McCarthy fans will be stunned by this very different turn when they see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, especially if it’s their introduction to her doing drama. Even though this is a dramedy, McCarthy is doing often quite serious work here. Whether it leads to an Oscar nomination and/or win for her is one thing, but beyond that, it’s just a high quality performance. That goes doubly so for Grant, who really deserved this showcase. Heller too will have her talents recognized on a larger scale than before, and that’s a delight. This is a really good movie, one well worth seeking out…

Be sure to check out Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in theaters this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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