Can You Ever Forgive Me? is for everybody out there who feels like a complete fraud. The movie is based on writer and literary forger Lee Israel’s confessional memoir. When her career as an author of celebrity biographies stalled due to lack of critical or commercial success, Israel got desperate. She spent a year in the early 1990s forging letters by dead celebrities like Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker and selling them to autograph brokers for hundreds of dollars each. The film is ostensibly about Israel successfully flimflamming the entire literary document community before the FBI caught onto her. But it’s also an examination of her sense of identity being stripped away when what she’s built it on – her work as a writer – is destroyed because both her colleagues and the public tell her she’s no good at it.
If you couldn’t tell from the opening sentence of this review, I count myself as one of those people who feels like a fraud. Can You Ever Forgive Me? spoke to me personally because of a revelation Israel has in the movie about her own work. Her career was a failure, she observes, because she never found her own voice in her writing. She used the celebrities who where her subjects as well as her writing to hide herself. I have the same problem. I’m so self-conscious about my ability to express meaningful insights about movies that I’ve never felt confident in what I write.
Israel found a way, albeit an illegal and unethical one, to find her voice. As she says during the movie, “I’ll have you know, I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.” She still had to hide behind other people in order to express herself, but she was damn good at it. Late in the picture, Israel shows pride in the fraud and forgeries she’s perpetrated. The work itself was good, even if it made her acutely aware of her greatest flaws and shortcomings. The film’s director, Marielle Heller, and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, have constructed a bittersweet, warts-and-all portrait of a woman coming to terms with her own failures, both personal and professional.
Melissa McCarthy’s wry, wonderfully understated performance as Israel is also central to the film’s success. McCarthy is making a turn here from the broadest of comedy in movies like Bridesmaids and Spy to something much more acidic. Can You Ever Forgive Me? has comedic elements, but the laughs are sardonic in nature; this is the darkest comedy of McCarthy’s career, and she proves herself adept at delivering it. She explores multiple emotional layers as Israel, and the result is a rich and satisfying performance.
Veteran actor Richard E. Grant’s flamboyant turn as a drug dealer named Jack Hock, who becomes involved in Israel’s schemes, dovetails magnificently with McCarthy’s subtle take on her character. Hock is a down-on-his-luck grifter who can sympathize with the harsher aspects of Israel’s misanthropy. Grant and McCarthy play splendidly off one another, and the cynical laughs are infused with effective pathos. One of the most unexpectedly touching scenes in the movie involves the consequences Hock’s irresponsible nature has on Israel’s beloved elderly cat.
Israel and Hock are both fuck-ups who deserve each other, but the movie treats their relationship with dignity and respect.
Along with its compelling thematic concerns about people who move through life as frauds, Can You Ever Forgive Me? also includes a tense bit of action. When Israel is black-balled from selling her forged letters because of their dubious authenticity, Hock talks her into using her credentials as a biographer to steal the real thing from libraries and archives. The plan is for Israel to replace the authentic documents with identical fakes, so Hock can then sell the stolen letters to the dealers for her. Heller stages a mini-heist movie right in the middle of her quiet character study. While the brief sequence is technically simple, the tension that Heller’s editor, Anne McCabe, creates is as exciting as anything you’ll find in one of the Ocean’s films.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a perfect way to memorialize Lee Israel’s dubious career of forgery. After all, movies “based on a true story” always take the most fascinating kernels of the source material and embellish them to make them even more dramatic and interesting. They are, in a way, themselves a certain kind of forgery. When Israel would create her own fakes, she gave to the people whom she was selling what they wanted. She used her imagination and her knowledge about the famous people she was impersonating to make them sound even more like themselves than they ever did.
That’s what gave her such pride in what she produced. She had to sign someone else’s name to it, but it was ultimately her work. She thought it was the best thing she did in a life she judged as being defined by mediocrity. I struggle with my own feelings of mediocrity, especially in my writing. Regardless, I still take pride in what I do. I might always have feelings of inadequacy when it comes to my observations on film, but at least they’re my own.
Why it got 4 stars:
- Personal reasons aside, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a darkly funny character study of a one-of-a-kind woman. Melissa McCarthy’s quiet, sarcastic performance (and Richard E. Grant’s wonderful co-star turn) make the movie a fascinating watch.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There’s a scene in the movie when you think Israel might be coming to her senses as she’s making her first forgery. McCarthy has a look on her face that suggests something like “What am I doing?" is going through her mind. The next shot supplies a laugh as you realize she was just looking for something to use as a light box, in order to trace the signature on the letter perfectly.
- If the movie is to be believed, Israel put a lot of thought into her work. There is a scene showing all the time-appropriate typewriters she had to buy in order to get each letter to look just right.
- McCarthy transformed herself for the role. Her frumpy look allowed her to disappear into the part of Lee Israel.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- There were only a few other people at my screening, and they didn’t seem to find the movie as funny as I did. It’s definitely a drama, but the biting comedy (which comes mostly out of Israel’s misanthropy) was a highlight of the movie for me.