Marielle Heller (director)
1h 46min (length)
31 January 2021 (released)
27 February 2019
The cliche of the impoverished and unappreciated writer maybe a familiar one, but biographer-turned-fraudster Lee Israel is no ordinary failed scribe.
Her story provides rich material for director Marielle Heller's new film Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in which Melissa McCarthy moves away from comic fare to star as Israel. With a likeable star known for comedy roles, audiences could be forgiven for thinking Heller will find a sympathetic side to a person known for her abrasiveness - but nothing could be further than the truth.
Israel's career hit a rut in the late 1980s after a failed book on beauty icon Estee Lauder. Embittered, angry, and so short of cash she can't afford rent on her squalid apartment or vet's bills for her beloved cat (and only friend) Jersey, she hits upon a money-making scheme while researching a disastrous plan to write a book about showgirl Fanny Brice.
After stealing a letter belonging to Brice while rooting through an archive and discovering her own humorous addition greatly increases its value, she begins forging letters from famous wits, including Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker (whose invented sign-off gives the movie its title), and selling them to unscrupulous or naive booksellers and dealers.
McCarthy is a revelation as the film's central uber-grouch - a person who despite her profession requiring her to understand the lives of others, genuinely hates people. One brilliant early scene sees her gatecrash a party hosted by her agent (Jane Curtin) simply to complain about her lack of work, express her fury at the success of her fellow guest, the novelist Tom Clancy, while guzzling booze and stealing toilet roll and a winter coat.
It's when Israel meets flamboyant homosexual down-and-out Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) that Can You Ever Forgive Me? really comes alive though. Despite being irredeemably selfish in very different ways - Hock's primary interest in his next fix, chemical or sexual, while Israel is so uninterested in the niceties of life piles of cat poo sit under her bed - they bond over their love of drink and outcast status in a lovingly recreated New York City. She then involves him in her forgery scheme after dealers begin to become suspicious as to how she has come into possession of so many spectacular missives penned by iconic figures (her forgeries eventually totalled around 400) - attention that in turn draws in the FBI and forces her to change her modus operandi to stealing real letters from archives.
The chemistry between the film's two co-stars is superb, as both sparkle with hate-filled wit, while hinting at the underlying sadness that fuelled Israel's temper and Hock's self-destructive tendencies. Several scenes are genuinely touching, with Israel's aborted friendship (and possible romance) with Anna, a bookseller she is defrauding with her letters, and her connection with her ex-girlfriend Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith) showing what her anger at the world has cost her.
Grant, who has received an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance, channels the devil-may-care charm that he exhibited three decades ago as the title character in Withnail & I. Just as in that film, he pulls off the remarkable trick of being hilariously acerbic throughout, but gradually revealing the emptiness that often lies behind a risque lifestyle.
Although we see both characters' vulnerabilities this is not a tale of redemption. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on Israel's unrepentant memoir of the same name. It's a book in which she expressed pride at her crimes rather than remorse, claiming that her letters were often better than the real thing and gave people what they wanted. It's a sentiment Heller's film doesn't entirely endorse - but an important theme is how the superficiality that ended her writing career as publishing trends moved towards self-promotion rather than painstaking research, also enabled her success as a forger.
Sad, funny, unforgiving of its subject, but also the world that spat her out and turned a brilliant writer into a skilled forger, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a must-see.