Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant
Director: Marielle Heller
Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
It’s no easy feat to make a film about ageing, loneliness and self-loathing as funny and enjoyable as this but damned if Marielle Heller didn’t pull it off. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a film that’s never short on laughs, especially in the hilariously bitter ways that Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) treats the world around her. It’s only when the film hits you with a moment of such tragic melancholy that you remember it’s not actually a comedy. Most of the time in films loneliness is the image of a sole figure in an open, empty space gazing into the distance while some gloomy music plays. The image of loneliness presented here is altogether more despondent; it’s like a parasite that’s latched onto you and burrowed itself so deeply that you’ve convinced yourself it’s an actual part of your physical body. It’s a tragic self-fulfilling prophecy whereby a miserably lonely figure such as this film’s depiction of Israel won’t make any meaningful effort to change their lives because they’ve convinced themselves that the loneliness is simply who they are. That the film is able to make that dejected feeling felt as viscerally as it is while still scoring laughs and leaving you feeling like you’ve just watched a feel-good movie is a testament to how superbly it balances itself on that delicately fine line between comedy and drama.
Based on the real Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? recounts her short-lived career as a literary forger. Once a bestselling author of biographies of such cultural icons as Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder, we first meet Lee in 1991 when she hasn’t had a successful book in years. She has taken a proofreading job for which she is vastly overqualified (to the point that she can (and often will) do it drunk) just to pay the bills and has had to resort to impersonating Nora Ephron on the phone just so that her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) will take her calls. Her latest project about vaudeville comedienne Fanny Brice is failing to gain any traction with the publishers she used to work with and it is all too apparent that whatever pull her name had back in her more prolific days has long since dissipated. Her bitter and belligerent conduct has resulted in the burning of whatever bridges she once had to the publishing world and the hapless author has only grown more resentful over time. The depths to which Lee has fallen is made readily apparent when she is compelled to infiltrate the kind of fancy party she has always hated with the kinds of literary bigwigs she has always despised (including Tom Clancy) just to get a straight answer from someone. Thus, as likeable a protagonist as she is, it’s no great surprise to see that Lee lives in a run-down apartment alone with her cat.
While carrying out research for the book that nobody wants, Lee happens upon a small bunch of letters written by Brice. She swipes one of the notes to have it valued at her local bookshop and learns that the writings could earn her some pocket money but not much more. That is until she adds a saucy P.S. to one of the notes with her typewriter and finds that collectors are willing to pay far more for its witty, scandalous content. Realising that she may have tapped into something potentially huge, Lee proceeds to compose forgeries in the likeness of such icons as Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker. Her new venture becomes so lucrative and successful that she enlists the drunken, out-of-work actor Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to peddle the texts to several different bookshops and collectors in order to avoid rousing any suspicion. What ends up surprising Lee the most about this whole scam, more than its profitability, is how good she is at capturing the voices of some of the greatest wits and minds of the 20th century and how ravenously hungry people are for something that she herself has written after so many years of obscurity and irrelevancy. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she announces with pride.
This film finally gives McCarthy a chance to flex her dramatic acting muscles and the result is the performance of her career thus far. Her comedy instincts might have tempted her to overplay the character by exaggerating her aggressiveness or hamming up the drunkenness, but that would have been a mistake. Instead her focus is on the human being behind the cursing and booze, one who feels inconsolably estranged and abandoned by the world. She has alienated all those who once loved and respected her and has been left behind by her community and peers due to this fundamental inability to connect with others and adapt to change. One of the more poignant moments in the film is when the romantic bond Lee as formed with local bookshop owner Anna (Dolly Wells) comes to a head as the self-destructive author, convinced of her worthlessness, is ultimately unable to accept the affection that she so desperately craves. This is the kind of role that could easily have been a typical loser-turned-criminal but the depth McCarthy brings instead allows the audience to appreciate Lee as a profoundly broken human being, one consumed and trapped by the loneliness that drives her to act out in such harmful ways. That we empathise with this antagonistic fraudster and find her as funny and sympathetic as we do is as much due to McCarthy’s talents as it is Holofcener and Whitty’s writing.
One of the great pleasures of the film is watching Lee interact with Jack, the only person she knows more wretched than herself and thus the only one willing to put up with her. The casting of Grant invites us to view the character as an older Withnail, still addicted to booze and cigarettes and still putting on an elaborate performance as the character of himself, but there’s a little more going on here. He is homeless and HIV positive and, like Lee, he has been similarly exiled by the New York literary scene. In addition to this Jack is a gay man who, like many other gay men in 1991, feels like has had been abandoned by the world at large and left behind to die. It is a begrudging friendship that they form and seldom do they have anything nice to say about one another but over time it becomes clear to them both that the reason they keep meeting in the same bar at the same time is because neither has anywhere else to go or anybody else who will drink with them. That Jack is so full of glee and bravado (a mask for his anxieties of course) while Lee is grumpy and vicious allows for same great contrast between the two which make their back-and-forths amongst the most delightfully funny moments. Like many things in this film it is both sweet and sad to watch these two nasty characters realise, even after all the insults they trade, all the harms they inflict and all the trouble the con gets them into, not only how much they actually like each other but also how desperately they need each other.
What impresses the most about Can You Ever Forgive Me? is how seamlessly it captures its comically dramatic (or dramatically comical) tone. This is a film that could have easily been either too miserable to be enjoyable or too humorous to be taken seriously. Instead Heller manages to make it land in that perfect middle ground where The Apartment, Harold and Maude and Withnail & I live, all of them films that will make you laugh until you realise how tragic the characters are but then still somehow keep you laughing anyway. The premise about how Lee fools the world with her fabricated letters might lead you to believe that her story will work out something like The Producers, but this film is not a comedy (or at least it’s not that kind of comedy). Some of the circumstances are amusing and Lee is herself a funny character, but when the whole plot inevitably unravels and the truth comes out, it’s not a pay off, it’s a disaster. At the same time, however, it comes with a silver lining, a small but meaningful victory for Lee that nobody can take away. The film ends on a humble but touching note while still maintaining its sense of humour and every second that came before was a pleasure to watch.