Marielle Heller’s joyous comedy Can You Ever Forgive Me? positively glows

Plus: our review of Green Book.

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For what could have been a sordid and interior little yarn, Can You Ever Forgive Me? positively glows. Marielle Heller’s joyous comedy about a real-life literary hoax is set in New York City in the early 1990s. The black night is streaked with luminous golds; in poky bars, the orange from a tumbler of whisky is enough to illuminate the room. If you’ve ever found yourself in a library or a gin joint or a second-hand bookshop at the end of a wintry afternoon, the gloom outside fortifying the warmth within, you will recognise the consoling light captured by the cinematographer Brandon Trost in his rich, widescreen compositions. The irony is that while the look of the movie says “Come on in”, its protagonist hollers: “Scram!”

We are in the company of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a bitter, unsociable and largely unsung middle-aged writer who has fallen from favour and landed with a bump. A once-successful biographer, she now resorts to pretending to be Nora Ephron just to get her own agent to take her calls. The New York Times said Lee “possessed a temperament that made conventional employment nearly impossible”, and McCarthy, whose outfits make it seem as if last week’s dirty laundry just got up and started walking, doesn’t soft-pedal her flaws. She’s a scowl on legs with a Worzel Gummidge hairdo and a Rudolph nose. Even before she hits on the idea of forging and selling correspondence from the likes of Lillian Hellman and Noël Coward, she is already stealing and sniping. Her only friends are her cat, who uses the space beneath her bed as a litter tray, and Jack Hock, a fellow barfly who graduates to partner-in-crime. Richard E Grant’s blissful performance in that role, kitted out in a hat and cape like a skid-row Sandeman, can’t help but make the film a kind of Withnail and Her.

Lee may be an alcoholic misanthrope – she puts the “pissed” into “epistolary” – but she pours her heart into those letters. If anything, the film underplays the lengths to which she went in her pursuit of authenticity. It wasn’t just about perfecting Coward’s signature or mocking up duplicates of Dorothy Parker’s personalised stationery (“OK Mrs Parker, that’ll be $35.50,” says the oblivious print-shop assistant). She immersed herself in research like the dedicated biographer she was, producing around 400 letters before she was finally caught. The film doesn’t soften her, or insist that she actually wanted her voice to be heard: her goal, whether as biographer, hoaxer or human being, was to stay hidden. She’ll take the compliments – “I especially liked the Louise Brooks,” says her own defence attorney – so long as she doesn’t have to spend any time with people.

In the final stretch of the film, with Lee’s scam uncovered and the FBI on her tail, the colours become more muted, and the perky notes in the score, by Heller’s brother Nate, are replaced by restlessness and melancholy. But the glow persists. That’s because the picture is lit from the inside, too, by compassion and curiosity. “No one’s buying Lee Israel letters,” Jack points out. Yet here we are watching a movie about her, and a fine one at that. She died in 2014, knowing that her story was being developed for the screen, and asked only one thing: “Don’t make it sentimental.” She got her wish.

Despite its title, Green Book fails to continue the literary theme. The publication in question was an indispensable companion for any African-American motorists travelling in the US during the Jim Crow era, since it listed only those establishments that would accept their custom. Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer from the Bronx, consults the guidebook on his travels with Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an esteemed pianist – “His virtuosity is worthy of the gods,” Stravinsky once said – who hires him to be his chauffeur on a concert tour of the Deep South. Tony is garrulous and unsophisticated while Don is an elegantly monastic figure who disapproves of his companion’s methods but requires his protection.

The film is based on real events, though some points are disputed. Don Shirley’s family has branded the screenplay “a symphony of lies”, alleging that a simple business arrangement has been exaggerated into a heart-warming friendship. But it would be difficult not to enjoy the work of Mortensen, who is both tonally lighter and physically heavier than usual. His new bulk brings with it some broad comic possibilities, deftly played. Though Ali has the poorer role, he conveys the frustrations of a man who would dearly love to feel as serene on the inside as he appears on the outside.

This is essentially Driving Miss Daisy in reverse: now it’s the white character in the driving seat, in more ways than one. At heart, Green Book is the story of a casual racist whitesplaining the business of being black. It is Tony who introduces Don to fresh culinary experiences (“You people love fried chicken!”) and to the music of Chubby Checker and Little Richard (“Come on, Doc, these are your people”). When these new BFFs encounter some actual rednecks en route, it’s helpful to see what hardcore racism looks like, so that the sort practised by Tony (not wanting black workmen drinking from his glasses at home, for instance) appears benign by comparison. He’s a cuddly racist. He wouldn’t dream of cutting eyeholes in a pillow-case.

Peter Farrelly, making a bid for prestige after a career of gross-out comedies (Dumb and Dumber, There’s Something About Mary), has co-written a script that infantilises Don at every turn. The pianist may coach Tony on expressing emotion in letters home to his wife but what he gets back is shown to be infinitely greater. Even the matter of his sexuality is included only to prove what a progressive, stand-up sort of guy his driver can be: “I know it’s a complicated world,” Tony says, understandingly. What with him helping Don make peace with his blackness and his homosexuality, I suppose we should be grateful he doesn’t teach him a few numbers on the piano while he’s at it. None of which should be surprising. It was Tony’s son, Nick Vallelonga, who developed the story, brought it to Farrelly and co-wrote the screenplay, and no one could say he hasn’t done his father proud.

Green Book and Can You Ever Forgive Me? are both in the running for Oscars this month. The latter has three nominations – one each for McCarthy and Grant and one for its screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty – while Green Book has five, including nods for Mortensen, Ali and the script. Undermining the movie’s message somewhat was the recent discovery of an Islamophobic tweet sent by Nick Vallelonga to Donald Trump in 2015. It isn’t that a decent movie has been compromised by this, more that a compromised one has been tainted, and it will be for audience members and Oscar voters alike to consider Vallelonga’s online bigotry and ask: can we ever forgive him? 

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (15)
dir: Marielle Heller
Green Book (12A) dir: Peter Farrelly

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 01 February 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Epic fail