The makers of Can You Ever Forgive Me? have more affection for its central character than she has for anyone other than her beloved cat. Director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty succeed in not making that decision seem like a forgery as they delve into what made Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) behave that way. Based on a true story, Lee is a New York loner in the early 1990s. She’s a writer of biographies whose best work is in the rear view. Her exasperated agent (Jane Curtin) advises her to explore other career paths.
That’s not in the cards for Lee. When she sells a handwritten note from her former subject Katherine Hepburn to go on the collectibles circuit, it dawns on her that it’s easy money. Unfortunately for her, she doesn’t have other pricey artifacts from celebrities lying around. So she forges them. The letters come from Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker, among others. This allows her to pay the rent. It also allows her a creative writing exercise that scratches her itch.
Lee’s partner in crime is Jack (Richard E. Grant), an aging and flamboyant drug dealer who gets through life due to his bright blue eyes. They share a love of alcohol and a lack of empathy for others. They never fully trust one another. Yet Jack comes closer to actually being liked occasionally by Lee over anything other than the feline persuasion.
We’ve seen how strong of an actress McCarthy can be, especially with her Oscar nominated turn in Bridesmaids. Her slew of headlining comedies that followed have sometimes wasted her talents. This is a different story. While there’s plenty of sardonic humor sprinkled throughout, this is her most dramatic turn. Lee is an unpleasant person to be around. Because of McCarthy’s considerable talents, she’s definitely not unpleasant to watch. She’s matched in quality by Grant, who’s terrific.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is unique in that it doesn’t paint a criminal that’s particularly regretful of her actions. After all, it gives her a way to knock out any pesky writer’s block. The screenplay is clever in not over explaining Lee. We eventually see that much of her behavior comes from a deep place of loneliness. It’s telling that she only seems capable of focusing on subjects she never knew who came from a different era that she considers better. She can’t connect with potential women who could be partners or really anyone else. Lee does find a connection with Coward and Parker and makes their missives more entertaining. If only that kind of thing wasn’t illegal. However, it gives Lee Israel one final fascinating tale. And it’s at last about her.
***1/2 (out of four)