Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 10/26/18 23:22:30

"Love Letters"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a film that recounts the real-life misadventures (and occasional felonies) of a woman who was so prickly, so off-putting and so brazenly anti-social that if you wound up standing in line next to her while waiting to get coffee, you would not only flee the premises long before your order was called, you would probably vow right then and there to never drink the stuff again so as to prevent the possibility of that ever happening again. Considering how aggressive contemporary American movies are these days in making sure that the main characters are as “likable” as can be, even when such an approach is inappropriate at best (even “Gotti” tried to position the real-life organized crime kingpin at its center as just a regular neighborhood guy who occasionally had to whack people, most of whom deserved it), that is a positively radical approach for one to take these days. Instead of trying to create a false sense of sympathy, this inventive and highly entertaining biopic is more concerned with presenting its central character as is, warts and all, and then trying to get viewers to empathize with her and her frequently poor choices and gradually understand, if not excuse, what drives her to such behavior in the first place. Aided in large part by a first-rate performance by Melissa McCarthy that is arguably her finest work to date, the film does just that and the result is an uncommonly fascinating character study of the kind of person that most people pray that they never come into contact with under any circumstances.

The subject at hand is Lee Israel (McCarthy), an American writer who worked through the 1970s and 1980s as a freelance journalist and as the biographer of such subjects as Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder. When the film opens, alas, it is the 1990s and her career has long hit the skids—her ability to subsume her own voice for those of her subjects means that her name means nothing to the buying public and her insistence on writing about obscure subjects of dubious commercial value means that no publisher is willing to cough up even a modest advance for a new book. Compounding Israel’s problems immeasurably is that she herself is no day in the park. She is a decidedly antisocial type who drinks all day, seems to go out of her way to antagonize people in the most self-destructive ways imaginable, has no realistic idea of what the current book-buying audience might want—at one point, she gets into a screaming match with her agent over why she can’t a deal akin to the one Tom Clancy just go for his latest mega-seller for her upcoming biography of Fanny Brice—and only seems comfortable when she retires to the decrepit apartment that she shares with her aging cat.

While off doing research on the Brice project one day, Lee is poring through some old books when she finds a couple of letters written to their previous owner by Brice herself. In desperate need of quick cash, Lee grabs the letters for herself and takes one to a local bookstore to sell as there is a burgeoning market for such memorabilia. She gets a few bucks for it but is advised that it might have been worth more if the content of the letter had been a little more exciting. While struggling to make headway with the Brice book, Lee impulsively takes another one of the letters—one as bland as the previous one—and slides it into her typewriter in order to zest it up a little bit by adding a funny postscript. She takes this partly ersatz missive to the same store and get a much better price for it primarily because of that postscript. Duly inspired, Lee decides to start forging entire letters from long-dead writers such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward by employing her skill at channelling the voices of her subjects and even goes so far as to acquire a number of old typewriters and artificially aged stationary in order to keep up the ruse. At first, her ruse is a success but when questions start to crop up about the validity of the letters she is selling—she has some of her subjects casually tossing off references to then-taboo subjects that they never would have said anything about back in the day—she finds herself going to increasingly desperate lengths to keep things going for as long as possible before the whole house of cards collapses.

A more simplistic version of this story might have gone out of its way to try to paint Lee Israel and her eventual literary crimes in the best light imaginable in order to make her seem more likable and the story seem more relatable the mass audience. Happily, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is not that film because director Marielle Heller and co-writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty are not so willing to let her off the hook. Throughout the film, they emphasize Israel’s cold, nasty and self-pitying nature and make sure that viewers realize that her crimes, while not violent by any means—were by no means victimless, as seen by the number of dealers and collectors who were suckered in by her efforts. What it does do, however, is put viewers inside the skin of Israel, in much the same way that she got into the minds of her subject, in order to give us a better chance of understanding the hows and whys of what she did, especially once she starts pushing her luck too far in terms of the content. This is a tricky and risky approach to take but it winds up paying off in the end because doing it this way allows us to get to know Israel in a way that might have otherwise eluded us. In the end, we may not like her at all per se but we can at least begin to understand what made her tick and even find ourselves hoping that she will somehow manage to avoid being exposed as a fraud.

The ability to generate a certain degree of empathy for Israel despite her prickly and resoundingly anti-social nature is due in no small part to the excellent performance by McCarthy. Over the years, I have wavered back and forth in my feelings towards her as an actress—when she is playing a well-developed character in a smartly conceived story, as was the case with her turns in “Bridesmaids” and “Spy,” she can be as funny and inspired as anyone else out there trying to tickle funny bones these days but when working from a less disciplined screenplay that hasn’t thought things out, she can stumble over the fine line between amusing obnoxious and abrasive obnoxious. Lee Israel is a role that is more serious than we normally get from her (though there are some explosively funny moments as well) but she handles all the nuances beautifully in ways that retain the character’s essential prickliness while still finding traces of the lost and lonely person behind the booze and bitterness and the constant aroma of cat funk. She also strikes up a winning onscreen rapport with Richard E. Grant, who plays an old acquaintance, one even more down on his luck than Lee and who is still trying to coast through life on nothing more than his charm, whom she takes in and enlists to help her with her scam with disastrous results—though their characters have no romantic designs on each other at all, the two actors present a more convincing display of on-screen chemistry than most love stories of recent vintage.

The only real hiccup to be found in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” comes in the form of a subplot involving the development of a relationship between Lee and a local bookshop owner (Dolly Wells), one who appreciates Lee’s acidic wit, that seems to be going well for a while until it is threatened by Lee’s fear of any form of commitment and, of course, those pesky forgeries. This material isn’t necessarily bad, per se, but it does feel like an attempt to soften Lee’s character a bit in an attempt to make her a little more palatable to audiences that jars uneasily with the rest of the film. For the most part, however, the film is a smart and cutting work that largely manages to avoid the urge to make itself and its central character more likable. Lee Israel may have been a terrible person in many ways but if “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” can be believed, she certainly made for a compelling film.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.