Can You Ever Forgive Me?
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