“Who’s the master, the painter or the forger?” asked Christian Bale’s Irving Rosenfeld in American Hustle as he looked at a fake Rembrandt hanging on the walls of a major museum. Director Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? asks the same question, albeit from a much less cynical perspective. The film tells the true-life tale of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a writer who began crafting forged letters from dead celebrities when her literary career plummeted. As Lee buries herself deeper into a pit of deception, Heller finds both entertainment and involving drama.
Find out more in our Can You Ever Forgive Me review below.
McCarthy’s starring role as Lee is a fairly ruthless, unglamorous turn – and not in the flashy, attention-grabbing way that often mars when humorists go dramatic. Some of McCarthy’s signature comedic maneuvers show up in the character, particularly the venom with which she can lace an insulting verbal barb. The humor serves as a key defense mechanism for Lee, a force she deploys to shield herself from the realities of the life she comes to despise more with each passing day. Once a New York Times best-seller with her non-fictional tomes, she has trouble ginning up any interest in her desired next project, a biography of an obscure vaudeville performer.
At one point, Lee confronts her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), about why she does not enjoy the monetary success of Tom Clancy in her work. The absurd question provides an opening for Marjorie to let rip on her client for her abrasiveness and refusal to play the publishing world’s games. “As an unknown, you can’t be such a bitch,” Marjorie declares while deriding Lee’s poor people skills. With nothing else but her talent behind the typewriter to pay her bills, Lee begins perverting her talent as a writer by selling fake letters from celebrities whose voice she can capture in prose.
In her debut film, 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller leaned into the depiction of women who did not fit neatly in society’s boxes nor conformed to behavioral expectations. In the same way that film’s protagonist Minnie did not feel the need to tamper her sexual drive, Lee bucks many conventions of “likeability,” that nebulous term used to shrug off far too many female narratives. The script, co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, pointedly refuses to soften the edges of Lee to make her a more sympathetic figure. This act of defiance seems so simple in concept, but it still proves fairly radical in mainstream cinema to reconcile competing ideas. Far too few screenwriters trust audiences enough to believe a character can be a loathsome person and yet still merit the occasional bout of empathy.
While Holofcener and Whitty lay the groundwork, it’s up to McCarthy to execute. Her performance is a true high-wire act. McCarthy must convey the depravity that motivates Lee to scam hapless collectors and friends alike without ever losing sight of the shred of dignity lurking somewhere inside the character. Rather than embrace broad styles like “comedic” or “dramatic,” McCarthy taps into emotions that span both genres – specifically, desperation and isolation. She stays to true to this compass throughout the film, including through the ending, which allows her Lee the chance for penitence without a false transformation arc.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is hardly a simple morality tale that watches a bad person get punished for their misdeeds, however. As Lee’s racket grows in complexity, the film subversively suggests that she’s actually begun to make her best art to date. The same insight into renowned artists that Lee uses in writing their biographies also applies to inventing fictions about their lives. If the film has a lesson, it’s how easily we can access the inverse of our gifts and talents.
All this talk of chicanery and swindling obscures just how delightful the film is to watch. Rotten though she may be, Lee Israel is hardly some joyless antihero. The adventure and thrill of her racket brings many colorful characters into her orbit, be it gullible collectors or the film’s scene-stealer, Richard E. Grant’s Jack Hock. He’s a similar huckster at heart, but Jack glides with such effortless charm that he functions as both foil and friend. Grant’s pitch-perfect delivery of Jack’s many bon mots might be the highlight of Can You Ever Forgive Me? as it plays out, yet it’s McCarthy’s performance that really lingers.
/Film rating: 7.5 out of 10
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