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No Forgiveness Needed

Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy
Fox Searchlight Pictures
 106 Minutes
Directed by: Marielle Heller
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant   
Can You Ever Forgive Me

Some of our best comic actors have also been terrific dramatic actors as well. Jack Lemmon will always be remembered as the cross-dressing Daphne from Some Like It Hot and as a grumpy old man, but six of his eight Oscar nominations came in serious roles. Peter Sellers was Inspector Clouseau, but his best performance was one of his most restrained in Being There. Now, on the distaff side, Melissa McCarthy, who is currently on a comic downhill slide in some mediocre comic vehicles that played up her zany, lovable side, hits dramatic paydirt as a quite unlovable character, writer Lee Israel, in the real-life story, Can You Ever Forgive Me.


The title of the film is also the title of Israel’s memoir about her exploits, which, in turn, was perhaps the best line from her entire career as a literary forger. For that’s what Israel became, a woman who created fake letters allegedly written by celebrities ranging from Noel Coward to Dorothy Parker and selling those letters to greedy collectors for, well, not a fortune but enough money to survive on for a couple of troubled years. The basic story has all the elements for a wacky caper comedy, but, despite the inherent comic possibilities (some of which the movie does exploit), Can You Ever Forgive Me is more a tragic tale of two flawed individuals who, ironically, perfectly complemented each other.


Lee Israel, the first of those characters, was at one time a renowned journalist, whose celebrity biographies hit the bestseller lists. But, as the movie begins in 1991, her last book has bombed badly, and she is now persona non grata among publishers, in part because of her recent failure but in larger part because of her surly, disagreeable personality, which makes her virtually toxic on the interview circuit that is a crucial part of successful book promotion. That same personality, plus her alcoholism, also cost Israel her job as a copy editor and cause her agent (Jane Curtin) to avoid Lee’s desperate calls about possible work. Soon, she is virtually destitute and on welfare, living in a filthy apartment with her only companion a sickly cat for whom she can’t afford medical treatment.


Soon, however, Israel discovers, more through happenstance than anything else, another talent. Out of desperation, she takes a prize possession, a letter from Katharine Hepburn, to Anna (Dolly Wells), a used bookseller. From that conversation, Lee begins to get the idea that she can make money by selling celebrity letters, and from there, Lee quickly starts her criminal career by adding a P.S. to a Fanny Brice letter to give it more zip and then graduates to all-out forgery. Lee’s investigative and literary talents enable her to mimic the style of various celebrities credibly and to gain actual samples of their handwriting to forge their signatures.


As Lee’s fortunes improve, her friendship with the film’s second major character, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) deepens. Like Lee, Jack is also a gay, alcoholic, middle-aged failure, an ex-con, living and hustling on the streets. But, while Lee is closed and closeted, Jack is flamboyantly extravagant. Unfortunately, he lacks much of Lee’s common sense, and his constant search for agreeable boy toys leads him to neglect much of what Lee entrusts him with. Still, Lee can’t dump Jack, both because she needs him to act as a front in selling her letters once the FBI starts getting suspicious, and, because, at some level, she realizes that Jack is all she has.


In real life, Jack Hock was a relatively minor character in Lee Israel’s life, but director Marielle Heller and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty wisely elevate his status here. Separately, both Jack and Lee are terribly flawed, but, somehow, combined, they make a dysfunctional yet effective team. It’s ironic that Lee is able to open up to Jack in ways she can’t with anyone else in her world, including Anna, with whom Lee goes out on an abortive date that ends with her pushing the obviously interested bookseller away. Lee's relationship with Jack, along with other small touches like the kindness she shows her landlord’s mother, indicate the bit of humanity in her that threatens to get lost in the misanthropy.


Can You Ever Forgive Me also casts a dim light on the literary world of the era, one consumed with celebrity and possessions, as opposed to actual talent. Lee’s letters become desirable as much for the ability of collectors to say they have them as for any real value they might have. The booksellers portrayed in the movie range from the snooty to the downright sleazy (one played by Melissa McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone actually blackmails Lee into keeping quiet). In the most ironic touch of all, Lee is a victim of the technology of her era. Today, she would have no difficulty in getting her work published electronically at the very least (or have a decent ghostwriting career) and could find an outlet that the tightly controlled publishing and bookselling industry of the 1990s denied her.


More than anything, however, Can You Ever Forgive Me is a testament to two actors who have not gotten the credit they deserve over the years, partly due to some unfortunate career choices. Both Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant have languished in some lame efforts, but both are perfect in their parts. For Grant, this may be his best work since his debut in Withnail & I. He captures both the flamboyance and the underlying sadness of Jack’s character, one that readily identifies with Lee. McCarthy has never had a dramatic role this good, and she keeps Lee right on the edge of being thoroughly dislikable. Instead, the character is tragically self-destructive, more so because her obvious talents wind up being put to use in a manner that winds up being only minimally rewarding financially (the real Lee Israel made far more money from her memoir than from her entire forging career).


Can You Ever Forgive Me is slow moving at times, with some scenes, such as a night that Lee and Jack spend in a drag bar, that seem to go nowhere. But it always comes back to its central character, who remained faithful to what she considered her core values (although few others would think them values). Thanks to two excellent performances and a sharp, perceptive script, Can You Ever Forgive Me is a film that shouldn’t need any forgiveness come awards season.

In this clip, Melissa McCarthy first gets to know Richard E. Grant.

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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) on IMDb