Let me begin with “I loved this film, and I can’t think of a thing that would improve it.” From the acting to the storyline to the music to the pacing and the cinematography ~ all facets of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” worked to warm the heart to these flawed characters. And characters they are. Melissa McCarthy is Oscar-worthy as real-life author Lee Israel. And Richard Grant is brilliant and equally award-worthy as Jack Hock ( his name, he reminds us rhymes with “cock” ), Lee’s seemingly insouciant partner in crime.
Marielle Heller directs and Amy Nauiokas is the producer. Women power to be sure! Cinematographer Brandon Trust gives us a 1990’s upper West New-York neighborhood before gentrification. Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty round out the superb contributors to a film about a dissatisfied New York writer, who though she wrote her way to the New York Times Best Seller’s list, could not secure an advance to complete a Fanny Brice bio. she wished to write. Retaining her fame was hard, and her NYT ‘s best seller is seen reduced by seventy-five percent and languishing on a bookseller’s sale table.
Now, almost penniless, Lee drinks and grumbles. Her surly “fuck-offs” alienate her from her agent, played with just the right caring frustration by Jane Curtin.
Since her rise with her biography of Dorothy Kilgallen, Lee is now reduced to loving a cat that doesn’t reciprocate and scamming a coat checker to stay warm. Even her long-time vet is asking for cash up front. Her down and almost out status, gives us a chance to meet the super of her apartment building and see Lee’s kinder side. McCarthy is wonderful at capturing myriad emotions with just the look of an eye or a lip pulled more tightly.
The screenplay allows its viewers to read between the lines. Lee is observant, but judgmental. She is lonely, but stand-offish. She is witty, but a “mean girl”. She is unlikeable, but we understand and forgive her. The film’s title is also the title of Lee’s own memoir which she borrowed from an invented quip she gave Dorothy Parker after supposed drunken behavior. You see, Lee has been forging addendum to literary figures’ prized memorabilia. We learn , along with Lee, how profitable selling to collectors can be, especially if the artifacts are embellished.
One such Lee Israel add-on actually made it into Noel Coward’s biography. Julie Andrews was fraudently said to be “ quite attractive since she dealt with a monstrous English overbite.”
Enter Richard Grant, Dolly Wells, Anna Smith, Stephen Spinella, and Ben Falcone ( McCarthy’s actual husband ) to add to one of the best supporting casts seen in film this year. No character study is complete without the insight of friends and foes. While Lee is peddling her spiced-up forgeries, one lonely bookstore owner shows an intellectual and a romantic interest in Lee. Lee apologizes, but declines: “ I’m not good at social clues.”
Later, we meet Lee’s former girlfriend, Elaine, ( Anna Smith ). Elaine gives us her backstory of being exhausted talking Lee off the ledge. She talks like someone who has had hours of therapy herself. Elaine tells Lee that she tried, but Lee was too self- involved, too miserable, and too trust adverse. Lee’s lawyer ( Spinella) is equally honest and forthright, but his kindly touch is abraded in familiar fashion. It is only Jack whose friendship lasts, and he agrees to let Lee write about their literary crimes. “ Make me with perfect skin, and don’t make me sound stupid,” he jokes.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is well-paced and uses music to wonderful effect. “ Oh, What A Hit We Made!” both speaks for Lee and Richard, and for the film itself. When Israel states that “ she was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”, moviegoers will agree with her caustic wit and remember the pain that called it forth. Kudos all.