Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Based on a delightfully strange true story, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the first film to showcase the dramatic talents of Melissa McCarthy, queen of spontaneous brilliance and precise comic timing. She does not disappoint.
McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a misanthropic writer in New York City who once made the bestseller lists with biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder. But Lee is in a spiral now, her successes long past and her future looking bleak. So she lives in the miserable moment with her beloved cat, her unpaid bills, and her endless bottles of brown liquor.
In her most desperate hour, Lee has a flash of inspiration. She turns to the surprisingly lucrative career of literary forgery, writing fake letters from famous authors and selling them to bookshop owners and collectors. Lee has a gift, it seems, for mimicking the written voice of popular writers like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. Lee takes a grim kind of pride in her work and exults in the idea of swindling the very industry that spurned her.
She soon joins forces with her barfly buddy, Jack Hock, a short-con grifter played by the inimitable British actor Richard E. Grant (Withnail & I). Together, they enjoy a short run of glory, followed by an inevitable descent when it all comes crashing down.
The details on literary forgery are compelling; it’s always interesting when a movie shows you the intricacies of a particularly weird kind of crime. For instance, we learn that many of the professionals who collect literary letters aren’t all that concerned about authenticity. An entire class of unethical dealers are happy to pawn fakes, so long as the money keeps moving in the proper direction.
McCarthy and Grant are fabulous together. Each paints a nuanced portrait of quiet desperation amid gentle dissolution and boozy decay. Anyone who’s seen McCarthy’s comic films knows she can handle these darker emotions just fine. There’s always been a sense of pain beneath her broad comedy. But Richard Grant—oh, my. He’s nothing short of incandescent in the role, his twinkling blue eyes full of misery and mischief.
The problem with the film—and it’s a severe one—is that the characterization of Lee just never rings true. In a sequence of third-act declarations, we’re asked to believe (or maybe told to accept) the idea that Lee takes noble literary pride in her forgeries. The pitch here is that faking a Dorothy Parker joke in a phony letter is a form of artistic expression from an artist too insecure and damaged to publish under her own name.
The script is based on the memoirs of the real-life Lee Israel, and maybe that element is convincing in the book, which I haven’t read. But this central conceit just isn’t believable on screen, despite McCarthy’s best efforts. In its last half-hour, the film resorts to declarative statements of its proposed characterization, and the too-tidy coda feels unearned. In fact, it feels like the filmmakers issued a forgery of their own, gifting Lee Israel with a ragged nobility that just wasn’t there.
Actually, the end notes are more interesting. Apparently, the real Lee Israel successfully forged more than four hundred letters over the course of her lucrative second career. Four hundred! She destroyed all the evidence before the FBI served their warrant and got out of it all with six months house arrest and five years of probation. Her memoir detailing her crimes made the bestseller lists. She kept that money, too.