An unassuming, almost casual little gem of a movie, endowed with a prickly, callous warmth that's as deliberately discomfiting to endure as it is alluring to recall. There's nothing particularly welcoming about Can You Ever Forgive Me?, it seeming to deploy its faculties ever at a distance, all subtlety and banality up front hiding compassion and intelligence behind. Even its coarse, deliciously mean streak of dark humour is tinged with more darkness than one might expect from a movie, coupling with a robust verbosity to craft a product that seems far too high-minded to ever be anything so cheap as enjoyable. It's less spiky and quippy than it is patiently cutting, as though Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty's script were less concerned with delivering fatal blows with their knife, more with slowly slicing away until all the blood's been let anyway. There's something more substantial to their murder method, somehow. Its effectiveness may not reveal itself upon first viewing, but its stealthy skill does so in recollection.
Marielle Heller, directing, too seems insistent on downplaying, not least in the simple faithfulness of the milieu she creates. Recreating recent history can be a tough task for filmmakers - something too far back to merely throw out the new iPhones and replace them with older versions, yet too close to fudge any details for the many who'll remember these times, or indeed for clear notions of a period aesthetic to have developed. Heller's '90s NYC has the most convincing timbre of the era itself, unfussy in its earnest recreations, and it's within this milieu that only the most believable action may take place. That such unbelievable acts were carried out is only dramatic fodder (and what fodder!), but director, writers and actors ensure that every moment feels genuine... to a point. Eventually, Can You Ever Forgive Me? lets up and lets sentiment in - a late scene that's quite beautiful, if it's also the movie's least believable.
Those actors are marvellous, and working with material this rich, how could they not be? Melissa McCarthy, ever the magnificent ham in an ensemble, is here quietly bitter and downtrodden, as withering as she is withered - she's the perfect lead for a movie that dwells in eccentric terrain without ever giving into conventional cinematic demands of what eccentric ought to entail. She and it are equally measured, which may at times be to its disadvantage, though one can but admire what McCarthy accomplishes. And Richard E. Grant puts his charming, camp, ever-so-English flair to never-better use, revealing not only the full extent of the power of his put-downs (so effortless as to almost escape recognition as put-downs) but also the emotional damage beneath them, that has necessitated them. These are wonderful roles, and real-life ones, tellingly. I must also mention, in a smaller part, the superb Dolly Wells in one of my favourite truly-supporting performances of last year. There's much to like about Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and arguably not enough to love, but then this is a movie that perhaps shouldn't be loved. Such gauche melodrama would be utterly out of place here, and for that, I'm rather delighted this movie exists at all.
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