Film Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

F Is For Fraudulence

Devin D. O'Leary
6 min read
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
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The job of a writer is normally so boring that filmmakers must go to great lengths to make it interesting on screen (Naked Lunch, Barton Fink, Ruby Sparks, Adaptation.). Films that do not push those boundaries of reality run the risk of portraying the task of writing as it truly is: someone sitting at a typewriter in sweatpants, staring at a blank sheet of paper for hours on end. The other option, of course, is to choose an author whose personality is so large that the writing is rather secondary (Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway—all of whom have had multiple movies made about them). Can You Ever Forgive Me?, based on the memoir by celebrity biographer Lee Israel, finds yet another path.

Lee, by all accounts, was a bitter, antisocial alcoholic who preferred staying home with her cat to interacting with other human beings. She was anything but a sparkling personality. And yet, the story of what made her infamous is a fascinating tale of fantasy and fabrication—the surest tools of any great author. Noted comic actor Melissa McCarthy (
Bridesmaids, Spy, The Heat) sheds her normally bright personality here to inhabit—perfectly, it must be noted—the dowdy, downbeat skin of Lee Israel. It’s the sort of “serious” bid for attention that a lot of comedians attempt (Robin Williams in The World According to Garp or Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Will Ferrell in Everything Must Go). But McCarthy’s transformation never feels self-serious or out-of-character. For all her flaws, there’s something … well, not quit lovable about Lee Israel, but certainly something forgivable.

Set in the late ’80s/early ’90s, the film locates Lee at the tail end of her writing career. Having penned several high-tone literary biographies on actress Tallulah Bankhead, cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder and others, Lee finds her career derailed by the waning interest of the American reading public. “The world doesn’t need another biography of Fanny Brice,” grouses the literary agent who never calls her back (old-school “SNL”er Jane Curtain in a welcome cameo). Broke and bitter, Lee does the typical author thing and drowns her anger in a whole lot of scotch.

Lee’s problem, as the film is quick to identify, is that she’s forever keeping herself at arm’s length from her fellow human beings. She has a knack for imitating the tone of her subjects—mostly because she’s loathe to speak in her own voice, lest it give people insight into her boring, unhappy life. The screenplay, co-written by the talented Nicole Holofcener (
Enough Said, Friends With Money, Lovely & Amazing) is insular and low-key, but swims with psychological insight. From the get-go it nails the tragicomic human story behind Lee’s petty-yet-outrageous tale.

The twist in Lee’s depressing tale comes sooner than later. At the end of her financial rope, Lee opts to sell off the sole sentimental item in her dingy New York apartment: a hand-signed letter sent to her from Katharine Hepburn after she penned a sympathetic article on the actress in
Esquire. Hocking the item at a local book store nets her enough to pay off a vet bill for her sick cat. It also gives her an idea. Finding an old typewriter at a pawn shop, Lee starts “manufacturing” letters from other famous actors and authors. A bit of literary invention and a quick signature at the bottom, and Lee can net herself a month’s rent. Soon her apartment is crowded with a dozen antique typewriters cranking out witty missives from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman and Noël Coward.

As Lee’s scam turns into a cottage industry, she enlists the aid of her sole friend, fellow alcoholic and over-the-hill New York gadfly Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant in his best roles since … hmm) to pawn off the forgeries. Grant and McCarthy make for a dynamite duo. (Interestingly, both main characters are gay—a fact that the film presents in refreshingly down-to-earth terms.) Are Lee and Jack really friends, or just a pair of big city losers platonically commiserating their sad lot in life over drunken bitch sessions, prank phone calls and a few minor felonies? A bit of both, really.

The film’s screenwriter, its star and its director (
Diary of a Teenage Girl helmer Marielle Heller) never downplay the fact that Lee is a prickly figure. “You’re not famous enough to be this much of a bitch,” points out her long-suffering agent. While all of this seems like setup for a very downbeat tale, Can You Ever Forgive Me? leavens its street-level indie film drama with a dark, biting sense of humor. It even manages to find a certain level of uplift in its tale of misanthropy, penury and fraud. In putting words in the mouths of so many famous literary figures, Lee more or less finds her voice, her purpose. “I was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she concludes in a sorry-but-not-sorry wrap-up.

When you look at it in a certain light, all authors are liars. Their job is to make things up. Of course, there’s something disingenuous when they try to pass off their fictions as truth (see for reference: Clifford Irving’s Howard Hughes biography, Konrad Kujau’s Hitler Diaries or James Frey’s
A Million Little Pieces). But there’s also something rebellious and cheeky about it. And it’s this morally ambiguous middle-ground that Can You Ever Forgive Me? finds so fertile. Shaggy and slight, tender and tough, caustic and sympathetic, witty and mean, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not what you’d call a mainstream smash. But it’s probably a film a lot of people are gonna wanna hunt down when Melissa McCarthy starts getting some rock-solid, well-earned Oscar buzz off it.
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