Film Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Terrific biopic about writer Lee Israel, a forger/thief and thoroughly unfashionable anti-heroine, brilliantly played by Melissa McCarthy.
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In Marielle Heller’s original—indeed, extraordinary—biopic Can You Ever Forgive Me?,writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy in a stunning performance) is a disheveled, middle-aged alcoholic lesbian barely existing in an Upper West Side apartment overflowing with flies and reeking of cat excrement. Her days are frittered away drinking solo in empty bars. She is an unapologetic misanthrope, foul-mouthed, mean-spirited and totally alone, short of her aging cat, Jersey, whom she loves deeply.

The formerly successful celebrity biographer (who penned best-sellers on Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen) has fallen on hard times and discovers a way to make a living as a literary thief/forger. Intellectual larceny feels damn good. It’s her “Fuck you!” to the world, with an added third finger to all her detractors and naysayers. Can You Ever Forgive Me? (terrible title) is an unexpected, profound portrayal of a new woman onscreen. The dowdy, 50-plus, brainy anti-heroine has arrived.

Loosely inspired by Israel’s readable memoir, the story is set in the early 1990s. AIDS is raging and self-marketing—admittedly in a pre-social-media environment—is the name of the game, though Israel, devoid of social fakery skills, refuses to, or perhaps can’t, play it and has thus become a pariah in media circles. Her last book was a critical/commercial disaster and her most recent pitch—penning a biography of vaudeville star Fanny Brice—is dated beyond redemption.

Her agent Marjorie (a crisply efficient Jane Curtin, who’s aged well) does not return her calls; the only way Israel can get through to her is to mimic Nora Ephron’s voice, at which point Marjorie is immediately available. Ephron accused Israel of harassment and the court served her with a cease-and-desist order. The film offers a telling bird’s-eye view of the publishing world. Credit must go to screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.

Early on, we see Israel proofreading copy at a law firm on the graveyard shift while drinking alcohol at her desk. She is fired and in the next scene trudges her way home through desolate pre-dawn streets. Throughout, the urban landscape, with silhouettes of bridges and skyscrapers and garish lights of all-night bars (hokey though it may be), serves as an evocative visual motif. Cinematographer Brandon Trost nails it.

In the wake of the job debacle, Israel crashes a party at Marjorie’s well-appointed Central Park West apartment, awash in smug literary types, where Israel loudly confronts her rep, pockets food and steals a guest’s pricey coat before leaving in a mood that combines high dudgeon, fear at being caught, and triumph when she’s not. She writes that her life was defined by relentless anxiety. Heller, whose previous film was Diary of a Teenage Girl (a dark rite-of-passage story marking an impressive debut), forges a world that is closing in on our protagonist—even though her troubles are largely of her own making.

The turning point comes as Israel, months behind on her rent, needs medical care for her beloved Jersey. The clinic refuses to treat the ailing animal unless Israel coughs up at least half the money she already owes for past medical services. And she just doesn’t have it.

Failing to generate much money on the sale of her old books—contending with supercilious dealers is an exercise in humiliation and futility—Israel steals a Fanny Brice letter from some unnamed research center and offers it to a literary/autograph memorabilia broker. The broker is interested but says he’d pay even more if there were some juicy material in the correspondence. The seed has been planted.

Well-versed in literary voices—from Dorothy Parker to Noel Coward to Lillian Hellman and beyond—Israel launches her new business, acquiring, forging and embellishing missives, adding commentary in various inimitable styles. She’s brilliant at it. In fact, “Can you ever forgive me?”, a phrase she attributed to Dorothy Parker (who never said it), embodies Parker’s ironic, slightly sarcastic tone. Israel creates respondents to whom the letters are addressed and gossips about various characters, some real, others not.

Along the way she obtains an array of vintage manual typewriters, careful to choose brands and models that her luminaries may have used and painstakingly practices their signatures. She also concocts an imaginary cousin, “Sidney,” a collector/owner of celebrity epistles who is in his dotage, she explains, wants to unload them and has asked Israel to help. “Cousin Sidney” accounts for how she has come to possess these valued relics. She grows increasingly brazen with each sale and manages to successfully hawk more than 400 pieces during her two-year crime spree.

No spoiler here. But in life—and fiction—nothing lasts forever. Predictably enough, when her work finally fails to be authenticated, she is tracked down by the FBI and arrested. Israel avoids jail time by pleading guilty, landing a real job as an editor at Scholastic magazine, doing community service of some sort (not clear what) and agreeing to go to AA (which she never does).

In addition to its fast-paced and quirky (in the best sense) narrative, the film is wonderfully ambiguous in its treatment of what Israel feels at the end. Throughout, she’s enjoyed outwitting the powers-that-be and besting her own icons, playing them as well as, if not better, than they ever did. Still, she expresses remorse at stealing from the archives that she’s always valued. To that degree she experiences regret and the title can be taken literally. At the same time, you can’t escape its underlying mockery. “Can you ever forgive me?” Indeed. And let’s not forget she continued to make money on her crime, not least for her memoir.

The movie is layered in its exploration of a solitary, at times anonymous life, and the empowerment that comes not with sharing but rather secrecy. Israel reaches out to a bookseller (Dolly Wells) and her ex-lover Elaine (Anna Deveare Smith, delivering, as always, a solid performance) appears briefly, but Israel is a one-woman show. Her only real companion (besides her cat) is Jack Hock (a brilliant performance by Richard E. Grant), a hustler, grifter and drinking buddy who has screwed his way through much of Manhattan’s gay community, unprotected and indiscriminate. Grant’s Jack (aka “Jacket”), a decaying fop, is charming yet abrasive, manipulative yet innocent, and always reckless.

He and Israel are pranksters, playing cruel jokes on others, before becoming partners in crime. Theirs is an uneasy alliance and in the end, as the feds close in, they betray each other. Still, it’s a love story of sorts. They are kindred spirits, nowhere more eloquently evoked than in a bar, where each is silently drinking away and almost moved as a piano player performs haunting songs right out of the ’30s and ’40s. It’s bathos personified, but intuitively spot-on for these self-destructive outliers to be affected by old tunes. In the woozy darkness they can allow themselves to respond to music and lyrics’ recounting mythic romance. “I’ll take Manhattan…”

Their relationship presents a special camaraderie between a gay man and lesbian in an era that predates any loudly touted LGBTQ political bonding. “Woke” had not yet entered the vocabulary. The fact that neither protagonist is youthful is yet another of the film’s newsworthy facets. Jack died of AIDS in the ’90s, and Israel passed in 2014.

McCarthy is, of course, best known for her coarsely comic turn in Bridesmaids (for which she received an Oscar nomination) and other broad-stroked comedies, from Spyto The Boss to Tammy, along with her TV stints on “Mike & Molly” and “Saturday Night Live,” where she perfected an uncanny Sean Spicer sendup. She showed her dramatic chops in St. Vincent, playing an introspective, sensitive single mother opposite Bill Murray. Still, that performance could not anticipate how fearlessly and credibly sheinhabits Lee Israel.

And McCarthy has found the right creative partner in Heller, who treads unchartered territory with a character like Israel: unfashionable, unfamiliar and unappealing to most viewers. Not to overstate the case, but the heavily distaff creative team—including many of its producers—has dared to celebrate a woman who in all likelihood never felt a rush of sisterhood in her life.