By Jessica Owoc
November 4, 2018
Can You Ever Forgive Me? depicts the true events of writer Lee Israel (portrayed by Melissa McCarthy) as she gets caught up in a world of deception and crime trying to earn enough money just to keep food on her table (or at least a drink in her glass). Once a top-selling biographer, Israel’s sales plummet and her agent (SNL alum Jane Curtin) won’t even take her calls. Desperate for cash, Israel discovers a knack for forging letters from prominent deceased authors. With the help of her friend Jack (Richard Grant), Lee begins to finally feel proud of the work she’s producing – even if it’s not technically her voice.
Melissa McCarthy takes a more serious turn in this film, different than most of the other projects she is known for (Bridesmaids, Gilmore Girls). However, her comedic timing isn’t lost in the role as she expertly delivers Lee’s dry wit and sarcasm. McCarthy proves that she is more than just a one-trick pony, only good for a punchline. Playing the charming drifter Jack Hock, Richard Grant effortlessly matches McCarthy’s jabs, as their love/hate relationship blossoms into possibly the only real friendship either of them ever had. Dolly Wells plays Anna, a bookshop owner and potential love interest for Lee. Having bought a few of the forged letters, the two develop a friendship that leaves each wanting more. Anna seemed to be visual conscience for Lee, serving as the face of Lee’s “victimless” crimes; a reminder that people did get hurt by her actions.
Had it not been for the movie’s title card assuring us the events occured in the early ‘90s, it would have been hard to tell just what decade the story took place. With muted tones, a jazz-inspired soundtrack and Lee’s outdated apartment, director Marielle Heller creates an environment that further isolates Lee from a world that is moving on without her. At times, the films pacing drags a bit, making the 1 hour and 46 minute run time feel longer. However, the fascinating and mostly unknown world of literary forgery, and McCarthy’s star power, move the narrative forward.
The story of Lee Israel is not only a story of true white collar crime, but it is also a story that resonates in today’s social climate. Israel was a woman writing about other women in a time and industry that required her to put on a smile and “play nice.” In a scene with her agent, Marjorie, Israel burst into the room after hearing the news of Tom Clancy’s multi-million dollar deal writing more “male-centric” stories. As she argues with Marjorie about why she can’t even get a small advance on her next book, the only advice Marjorie can give is for her to change her personality and write about something more interesting. The scene is a reminder of the uphill battle women have had to fight– and continue to fight– to try and get on the same playing field as their male colleagues.
McCarthy delivers with her stunning, toned down performance and makes Lee a sympathetic character, looking for her calling in life. In an ironic twist of fate, Lee Israel spent her life writing or impersonating others, yet her legacy was found in her own life and voice.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5