Can You Ever For­give Me?

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - — Jonathan Richards

In a throw­away snip­pet that is per­haps not thrown quite far enough away, a suc­cess­ful writer at a New York lit­er­ary cock­tail party pon­tif­i­cates that there is no such thing as writer’s block. Lee Is­rael (Melissa McCarthy) mut­ters an ep­i­thet and heads to the drinks ta­ble for a dou­ble scotch.

Lee is suf­fer­ing from writer’s block, com­pounded by a grow­ing ir­rel­e­vance. Once a best­selling bi­og­ra­pher, she is now — her true story opens in 1991 — floun­der­ing through a wilder­ness of un­mar­ketable ideas and un­re­turned phone calls from her agent (a crisp Jane Curtin).

Doggedly re­search­ing her lat­est dead end, a bi­og­ra­phy of funny girl Fanny Brice, she comes across a cou­ple of type­writ­ten let­ters from the ’20s come­di­enne tucked into a yel­low­ing li­brary book. Des­per­ate for rent money, she sells one of them to a dealer, who re­marks that it would have been more valu­able if the con­tent were zingier. And an idea is born.

At her desk, tak­ing a break from plod­ding around the writer’s block, Lee rolls the re­main­ing Brice let­ter into her type­writer and adds a witty postscript. Mirac­u­lously (and di­rec­tor Marielle Heller spends no time ex­am­in­ing the mir­a­cle), the font is iden­ti­cal, the forgery is un­de­tectable, and the let­ter fetches a hand­some price from the dealer. Soon Lee is branch­ing out, cre­at­ing and sell­ing let­ters from such lu­mi­nar­ies as Dorothy Parker and Noël Cow­ard that those icons could only wish they had writ­ten.

There is so much that is far-fetched here that we have to keep re­mind­ing our­selves that life is full of such stretches, and that this is the true story of the lit­er­ary forger Leonore Carol “Lee” Is­rael, who par­layed a tal­ent for mimicry into a whim­si­cal ca­reer that en­joyed a suc­cess­ful, if in­creas­ingly stress­ful, run at the end of the past mil­len­nium.

The movie rides the bril­liant tal­ents of its two stars, McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, who plays her gay side­kick Jack Hock. McCarthy strips away any shred of comedic glam­our to get in­side the grumpy, acer­bic Lee, whose peo­ple skills have all the em­pa­thetic sub­tlety of an an­ti­so­cial por­cu­pine. You can’t quite like Lee, but McCarthy makes her achingly hu­man and touch­ingly real. Grant pro­vides the per­fect coun­ter­foil, a flam­boy­ant ex­tro­vert who matches her drink for drink and note for note.

The fas­ci­na­tion of Can You Ever For­give Me? (the ti­tle is from a forged Dorothy Parker let­ter) is the sense of im­pend­ing dread it weaves, built upon the ba­sic hu­man fear of be­ing found out. If it oc­ca­sion­ally me­an­ders to­ward the borders of sen­ti­men­tal­ity, McCarthy’s un­com­pro­mis­ing crusti­ness keeps this crim­i­nal en­ter­prise hon­est.

Writ­ers at work: Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant

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