CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
STARRING: Melissa Mccarthy, Richard E. Grant
She’s broke, she drinks too much, her cat is sick and her books don’t sell; even her hair looks like a depressed ferret. Lee Israel (Mccarthy) is as clever as any writer out there, but she doesn’t know how to play the New York publishing game – schmoozing, making nice, not stealing toilet paper and shrimp canapés from her editor’s cocktail parties.
So, after stumbling into a happy accident at the public library, she decides to invent her own literary game, impersonating the private letters of beloved long-dead celebrities (Fanny Brice, Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker). Soon, her witty epistles are thrilling collectors and paying the rent. It’s just that they aren’t technically hers; also, they’re a crime.
The premise of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is so low-key outrageous, it would almost have to be true. And it is – a shaggy, endearingly sour portrait of the kind of old-school eccentric the world hardly seems to have room for anymore. Director Marielle Heller flawlessly re-creates the early-’90s Manhattan of Seinfeld reruns, a leached-brown city with windy park benches, linoleum-countered diners and cluttered apartments.
Mccarthy, utterly transformed, tamps down her manic comic energy into a sort of squirrelly, quietly furious ball as a woman who desperately wants to connect but can’t help hating everyone she meets. And her interplay with addled bon vivant Jack Hock (Grant), her fellow outcast and barfly, is fantastic – they’re two forever-square pegs soaked in whiskey and bitchery.
If Can You Ever’s actual story feels slight, it’s worth staying just to spend two hours with these characters. Not only Jack and Lee, but the cynics, kooks and loners who populate the rest of it – Lee’s dismissive editor (Jane Curtin); the gawky, tender-hearted bookstore owner reaching out from her own loneliness (Dolly Wells); a conga line of eager buyers and rent boys and FBI agents.
The movie, like the real story, eventually doles out its consequences, but Heller never really judges. It’s always better to ask for forgiveness, after all, than permission.