It takes nerve to make a film in which your protagonist is unpleasant. It requires a great script that manages to balance the dislike of the character with our own feelings of inadequacy, and a performance that also brings out the humanity and, if it doesn’t necessarily make us like the character, at least gives us an understanding of why they are like that. Can You Ever Forgive Me? has both.
Directed by Marielle Heller, who also made the under-regarded Diary of a Teenager Girl, with a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitley, stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in a true story of how a once popular writer hits bottom and tries to dig her way out through unethical and highly illegal methods. We watch a bit aghast as we enter Israel’s life, with a bad haircut, baggy clothes, a messy apartment (with cat poop under the bed). Her only redeeming characteristic is that she loves her cat, but at least I couldn’t help thinking that I’m only a click or two away from leading that kind of life. I think human nature requires even the most successful, with-it person to have fears like that–there but for fortune go I.
Israel wrote biographies about people of the past, but minor people. We catch her as she’s working on a biography of Fanny Brice, and her agent (Jane Curtin) tells her in no uncertain terms that no one wants to read that. But while researching, she comes along a signed letter by Brice. She sells it for a modest sum, and realizes that with some vintage typewriters and oven-baked stationery, she can forge letters and get top dollar. She picks people who are witty, so she can make the letters more interesting, mainly Dorothy Parker. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!” Israel exclaims.
Her partner in crime is played by Richard E. Grant, one of those people that somehow manage to exist without a job or a permanent home. He and Israel cling to each other like jetsam, and when she’s flagged for selling suspicious letters, he steps in. Of course, one day they will be caught, which is how we ended up with Israel’s memoir, which is the source of this film.
Writers will find this film excruciatingly familiar, as Israel finds that her greatest work is credited to others. She attends a literary party where a pompous writer declares that there’s no such thing as writer’s block, it’s just merely an excuse for laziness. When she calls her agent as herself, Curtin is not available, but if she calls as Nora Ephron, she gets right through (an end title tells us that Ephron got a cease and desist order to get Israel to stop doing this).
Both main characters are gay, which isn’t hidden but isn’t made all that significant (Grant, while housesitting, brings over a boy-toy which leads to disaster). Israel has a meeting with her old lover, and a flirtation with a book store owner who is one of the people she has conned. But I wouldn’t call this a gay pride film.
Besides the script, the film is held aloft by Melissa McCarthy as Israel. Known mostly for her slapstick comedy, McCarthy is terrific, creating a character obnoxious and pathetic but also disarmingly real. She states she likes cats better than people, but how many of us have felt that way (swap out cats for dogs or horses or birds or iguanas or what have you). McCarthy’s Israel is a person that lurks within all of us, she just doesn’t have the strength to keep those aspects of her personality hidden away.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a wonderful film, and despite the depressing nature of the plot, is ultimately uplifting.