***1/2 out of ****
(for strong language including some sexual references, and brief drug use)
Released: October 19, 2018 limited; November 9 expands
Runtime: 106 minutes
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Stephen Spinella, Ben Falcone, Jane Curtin, Christian Navarro, Anna Deavere Smith
A quality forgery is much harder than it looks. In a sense, it’s a work of art unto itself. That’s the secret behind the true story of celebrity biographer Lee Israel, and a pretty reasonable take on the movie about her.
It’s also a bit oversimplified. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an emotionally rewarding character study about Lee’s dysfunctional idiosyncrasies, and how they lure her into a life of literary crime.
The filmmaking influences are clear – Woody Allen especially (his style, if not his voice) and Nora Ephron, too – from how New York is shot, to the use of old standards in the soundtrack, to the elite condescension found in society circles, and the poignant bittersweet collision of humor and ennui.
But director Marielle Heller does much more than riff on techniques and tones; she crafts a affectionate, empathetic look at a very unlikeable person, a feat that takes more insight than aping popular styles.
The script, co-written by Nicole Holofcener (a New York filmmaker of her own renown), is also well-observed, but ultimately everything is rooted in a career-best dramatic performance from comic powerhouse Melissa McCarthy.
In the early 1990s, Tinseltown historian Lee Israel was down on her luck, struggling to make ends meet. Her books weren’t selling well, and she lacked a compelling pitch for a new one (her Fanny Brice passion project was rejected out of hand).
But after discovering the lucrative collector’s market for authentic correspondence from deceased literary and Hollywood icons, Israel hatched a plan: write and type out new letters in the voices of these icons, forge their signatures, and then sell them to buyer/sellers in that market.
The trajectory of her scheme is unsurprising: it went like gangbusters…until it didn’t.
Yet for as expected as that outcome is, how that trajectory unfolds, arcs, and eventually crashes is absolutely fascinating, not for any shocking twists or turns (despite the nail-biting lengths she goes to in order to maintain the gravy train) but rather the desperation of a woeful woman. This loner cat lady has a tenderness at her core but can’t temper her own destructive impulses.
The tension here isn’t so much in the plot; it’s in the heartbreaking soul. Lee is her own worst enemy.
It’s all emotionally and dramatically compelling, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? is also thoroughly entertaining, and beautifully captured. Its New York isn’t one of magic nostalgia or a glitzy glow, but of blue-collar boroughs under snow-covered blankets. The visual aesthetic and jazz piano score give it an austere elegance.
McCarthy and Heller bring a charm to this sad-sack enterprise, too, especially with the vibrant panache of Richard E. Grant. He plays Lee’s equally helpless partner in crime Jack Hock (appropriately named), but brandishes a polar opposite joie-de-vivre that is playfully scandalous. (Indeed, some of the banter here gets crude, crass, and saucy.)
Through them, we also see two very different explorations of gay identity. Jack is open and completely uninhibited (at times too much for his own good, even from a gay-affirming perspective). Lee is the opposite, not closeted but awkward and unsure. Her chaste attempts at testing the waters with a book seller friend and admirer (played by Dolly Wells, an actress I hope to see more of) are hard enough given her low self-esteem, but then are further compromised by Lee’s counterfeit communiques.
In every way, Jack serves as a wonderful contrast to Lee’s anti-social angst, a disposition not only of demeanor but also lifestyle (her apartment becomes a pig sty). The chemistry between McCarthy and Grant is lively and volatile, and it alone makes this an immensely compelling two-hander.
But it’s their ability to go much deeper, with some true soul-bearing rawness (and, for McCarthy, occasional ugliness) that make these two performances destined for Academy Award nominations, sealed by a climactic self-reflective confessional from Lee – both regretful and grateful – that will have McCarthy locked in on awards voters’ ballots. I can’t say I’m surprised by McCarthy’s chops, but nevertheless her range is a revelation.
The entire ensemble matches in their support, from the aforementioned Wells to a slew of recognizable character actors, including Jane Curtain who, even in a small role as Lee’s agent, made me wonder how many great performances we’ve been deprived of from her simply because she’s not thought of in “that way” by filmmakers.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? examines what it means to be fake, and to live life falsely, but with the most generous, truthful artists you could possibly hope for.