We just had our first biopic of the season, so it feels only appropriate to head into yet another. Coincidentally, or perhaps not since as we established last time, writers love writing about writers, we have another film centered around one. The tone and treatment of the writer at the center is considerably different than in was in A Private War. As opposed to the decade-plus look at Marie Colvin, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a decidedly more focused affair, taking place over the span of a couple months. Also, unlike that film, today’s title is far from a fawning tribute to a female writer.
Lee Israel lives alone with her cat in 1991 New York City. She has an agent who won’t call her back, her books aren’t selling, she loses her job thanks to her personality, and even beforehand she was unable to pay the medical bills for her aging cat or her rent. While she has managed to get one book on the New York Times Bestsellers list, her choice of subjects as a biographer have been ones which are of little interest to the public and her Great American Novel remains blank like so many others from what she claims is lack of time as she struggles to make ends meet, but what is just as evidently writer’s block.
While researching her latest subject, Fanny Brice, she stumbles upon a letter from the author in a book. She receives an offer of $75 for it, a not insubstantial amount, but an amount indicated to be a lot higher for more interesting letters. Faced with all these mounting difficulties, Israel resorts to using her typewriter to embellish the letter with a postscript and pull in $350 for the same letter. It’s the start of a criminal enterprise in which she starts creating forgeries from whole cloth for a number of literary figures and selling them to a number of dealers across town.
Melissa McCarthy plays Israel with a wonderfully caustic wit and it’s one of her funnier performances even accounting for the fact that it isn’t a pure comedy (or maybe because). Her friendship of sorts (and consequentially the resulting banter) with a charming Englishman played by Richard E. Grant is the highlight of the film. Their relationship is built on their rare ability to tolerate each other even as they have alienated everyone else and I always appreciate a platonic relationship between a man and a woman, even if the reason comes down to their status as LGBT characters. Grant’s character Jack Hock is the far more open in his sexuality as he sleeps and cons his way through New York (if still keeping both of them largely off screen), but I never got a sense that the film was intentionally deemphasizing her sexual orientation. Instead, Israel has mostly shut off that side of her and sets up walls between her and others that makes pursuing any kind of relationship with another human being impossible in the long term.
She takes pride in her work and there’s always a danger with these kinds of stories of being a bit too sympathetic to or glamorizing its criminal lead. There’s certainly no danger of the latter as she constantly portrayed as a lonely asshole, but the former is more complicated. She’s very obviously in a situation of her own making and the movie never excuses her for that, but thanks to McCarthy, she’s able to get far more sympathy than you’d expect from such a person. Yet, there’s certainly a sense from the movie that these people are all asking to be taken advantage of and that they kind of deserved it. I on the other hand find the more interesting discussion touched by the film to be about the voices of famous figures and how we perceive them to be always talking and writing the way they do in the public consciousness and in their works.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? handles its subject with care and more importantly makes for an entertaining time out. It’s principally an actor’s showcase especially for McCarthy and Grant (Ben Falcone also shows up for a small part and he should continue to be thankful that he is married to someone with talent who keeps him employed), but it’s a well-directed one that has a good sense of build and flow.