Review: ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’, Melissa McCarthy Gives An Honest Portrayal Of A Dishonest Writer

A writer needs to write, but what is a writer to do when they’ve run out of things to say? For Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), writing about semi-famous celebs from the early 20th-century had earned her a tiny bit of notoriety but not a lot of money, and she’s got cat food to buy and rent to pay. Instead of doing what other writers do which is ultimately decide to write about herself, Lee put a twist on her previous passion. She’d stop writing about famous literary figures and start pretending to be them, by capturing their voice in correspondence.

How in the world is this lucrative? That’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, what amounts to a strange, darkly comic biopic of real-life writer Lee Israel. Stumbling by chance on a genuine letter of some value, Lee began forging others and selling them back to the community of collectors who cherish such authentic personal correspondence. And Lee was a master at aping the thoughts and witticisms of famously brilliant wordsmiths, including the acerbic tongue of Dorothy Parker.  What’s stunning is the ease with which she’s able to pull it off. Sure, she went out and bought some vintage typewriters to get the typeface just right, and it took no small amount of brain power to conjure up clever notes that she knew could bring in big bucks, but shouldn’t there be some sort of authentication process? We’re talking about collectibles that sell in the hundreds to thousands of dollars. “Is there an authenticator for the authenticator?”, Lee asks with some snark at one point in the film, and it’s not a dumb question. The point being that the industry doesn’t really seem to care as long as people buy what they are selling.  In the bigger picture, the literary community are just as criminal as Lee for selling what they know to be forgeries.

On a smaller level, there’s a fascinating story to tell about a writer who has fallen so far she’s willing to take second-hand notoriety for her writing. Lee lives in squalor and on the cusp of abject poverty, having burned every personal and professional bridge to such a degree her agent (the always-welcome Jane Curtain) has to remind her she’s got no real prospects. Choosing to drink her problems away, Lee reconnects with the roguish Jack Hock (a terrific Richard E. Grant) who becomes her drinking buddy/criminal accomplice. The script by Nicole Holofcener (originally the director before Marielle Heller took over) finds its greatest and saddest truths in this pair of boozin’ buddies, who have both tumbled so far they barely recognize themselves anymore.

And yet the one thing this film can’t do is give us a reason to like Lee Israel. This despite Melissa McCarthy, straying from the physical comedy that has defined her, doing her best to soften Lee around the edges. It’s a frumpy role that leans hard on McCarthy’s ability to make us care for brash, deplorable characters, but I couldn’t escape the feeling Lee is as self-involved in the end as when we first meet her. In fact, her big revelatory speech at the end amounts to “I don’t regret a damn thang.” Ultimately, Lee does find her own voice and the reward is this adaptation of her memoir, so all of the swindling and backstabbing she did to get here turned out to be worth it, right?

Rating: 3 out of 5