Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Film Synopsis: Celebrity biographer Lee Israel makes her living profiling the likes of Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. When Lee is no longer able to get published because she has fallen out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack.
Director: Marielle Heller
Rated R. Runtime: 107 minutes
Wry, painful fact-based comedy has language, drinking.
A.O. Scott NY TIMES: Lee Israel may be the single most interesting movie character you will encounter this year, which is not to say that she’s altogether pleasant company. She would most likely feel the same way about you, minus the “interesting” part, unless you happen to be a cat or Dorothy Parker. It has been a while since a world-class, life-size misanthrope like Lee has commanded the screen — not another brooding narcissist or a showily difficult cable TV antihero, but a smart, cranky human recognizably made of flesh and blood. Also whiskey, bile and typewriter ink.
There was a real Lee Israel, a writer turned literary forger who died in 2014. In “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” based on Israel’s memoir of the same name, she’s played by Melissa McCarthy, in a performance that more than atones for “Life of the Party” and “The Happytime Murders.”Though McCarthy has played abrasive and obnoxious comic characters in the past — it’s one of her specialties — Lee is a 3-D grouch of a whole different order.
Early in the film, she treks across Manhattan from her place on West 82nd Street to a literary party at her agent’s apartment, which is much nicer than her own. Lee makes the rounds, sneering and muttering into her double Scotch; spars with the agent, whose name is Marjorie; and leaves with a few partial rolls of pilfered toilet paper, a napkin full of boiled shrimp (to be shared with her cat, Jersey) and someone else’s overcoat.
It’s 1991, and Lee, the author of several popular biographies of bygone celebrities, finds herself in career limbo — or possibly professional free fall. It’s too early to blame her woes on the internet, as future writers will. For reasons that Marjorie (Jane Curtin) is a little too eager to explain, Lee’s proposed life of the great vaudevillian Fanny Brice is a non-starter. An earlier book about Estée Lauder is for sale at a humiliating discount in a used bookstore. The rent is overdue. There’s no money to pay Jersey’s veterinary bills. A life of crime beckons.
What Lee falls into is no ordinary criminal enterprise, and her eventual accomplice is not a typical underworld minion. For a time, the only nonfeline companion Lee can tolerate is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a bon vivant of infinite charm, no fixed address and ambiguous professional bona fides. If Lee is a rent-stabilized Dorothy Parker, Jack is a couch-crashing Oscar Wilde — utterly ignorant of literature but naturally witty and great fun to be around. He’s game for anything, including serial fraud.
The scam arises by accident. Lee stumbles across — O.K., steals — a Fanny Brice letter and discovers that there’s a modestly remunerative market for that kind of memorabilia in the city’s used bookstores. The problem is that the letters for sale are often boring, perfunctory notes valued mainly for the famous signature. Lee sets out to improve the epistolary record (and increase the asking price) by fabricating dazzling missives from the likes of Parker, Lillian Hellman and Noël Coward. (The film’s title is a priceless bit of faux Parker.) It’s an elaborate grift, but also, she begins to feel, a literary art form in its own right.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” directed by Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), is catnip for the bookish. It will also appeal to anyone with nostalgia for a generally underappreciated era in New York history, when the high glamour felt a little scuffed, the urban apocalypse had been postponed, and Manhattan abounded in bookstores and scruffy gay bars. Enough of these are still around — including Argosy Book Store on East 59th and Julius’ on West 10th — to provide the film with locations and an atmosphere of lived-in cosmopolitan bohemianism. There were no Starbucks or co-working spaces back then. A person could breathe, and read.
Partly because the movie is so splendidly and completely absorbed in its characters and their milieu, it communicates much more than a quirky appreciation for old books and odd readers. Ms. Heller and the screenwriters, Jeff Whitty and the great Nicole Holofcener, resist the impulse to moralize about Lee’s misdeeds or to sand down her rough edges. Like “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” which handled disturbing material with grace and good humor, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is neither judgy nor ethically neutral. Lee and Jack can be gleefully amoral, and will go to great lengths to justify their actions, but they don’t entirely lack conscience or decency.