Mark Cunliffe 🌹’s review published on Letterboxd:
Thank heavens Chris O'Dowd passed on this. No offence to him, but I just cannot see him in the role of Jack Hock and I just don't think he'd have been able to draw out the light and shade of that character in the same way that REG does. A film like Can You Ever Forgive Me? lives or dies on its performances, and thankfully it boasts two top notch ones.
It's become de rigueur to say that REG is effectively inhabiting the Withnail role again here and, whilst it's true to say that it is utterly delightful to see everyone's favourite tea-totaller do his drink-loose-lipped, loquacious performance once more, I didn't actually see much similarities between Jack and Withnail beyond their fondness for the booze and an inherent campness, I mean there's a distinct lack of cunning or guile and an inherent decency to the character of Jack after all. No, here he is more the Marwood to Melissa McCarthy's demanding and difficult, frustrated Lee Israel; a failed writer who, just like the failed actor Withnail, has found that the telephone simply does not ring. A talented comic actress, McCarthy has always suggested depth in even the most inane of comedic roles and such dramatic versatility is finally allowed to bloom here in a production worthy of her talents in this respect. In a lesser performer's hands, I doubt an audience would feel the same degree of sympathy for the prickly fraudster that McCarthy somehow elicits. I'm not saying that first choice Julianne Moore would have been bad as Israel, but I am saying in some ways I am glad 'creative differences' allowed McCarthy to step up to the plate.
One performance that isn't mentioned all that much but deserves recognition is that of Dolly Wells. To many it may only appear a subplot, but it is one that reveals to the audience the level of self-hate that Israel possess that has kept people at arm's-length for so long. The mutual attraction here allows a little chink of light to escape and the audience at once begins to know Lee that little bit more, and all because of what initially seems like a secondary character. The real heart ache of that subplot is the fact that Lee gets to see the potential of letting someone but, as its basis is in deceit, we know it ultimately would not be possible.
My REG should have got the Oscar though.
Number 75 in my 52 films by Women in 2019 challenge