Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Film Review
Director: Marielle Heller
Writers: Nicole Holofcener (screenplay by), Jeff Whitty (screenplay by)
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells
Based on the autobiography of the late Lee Israel, “Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Memoirs of a Literary Forger”, director Marielle Heller’s film of the same name does exactly what it says on the tin. It tells the story of Lee (a superb Melissa McCarthy), a writer of film star biographies, whose work is no longer in vogue and who is struggling to keep a roof above her head and that of her beloved cat. When she comes across a letter by Fanny Brice (the original Funny Girl) in an old library book, she tries to sell it to to make ends meet but finds that it is only after she has added an invented postscript of a personal nature that the letter becomes in any way valuable. This unexpected success sets her thinking and starts her on a career as a forger of letters of celebrities, achieving a notoriety for which she is still remembered today.
Lee had been a successful writer in the past – one of her biographies had even been on the New York Times best sellers list. However, over time, the vaudeville and silent movies stars she liked to write about were of less interest to the reading public and her spiky, aggressive personality alienated literary agents and publishers alike. By the early 90s she found herself penniless and ostracised with only alcohol and the company of her cat to help her get through the day. Then came the Fanny Brice letter and overnight, her life changed.
Melissa McCarthy is mesmerising as awkward, misanthropic Lee who seemed set on antagonising everyone around her and unable to feel any true affection for anyone or anything, apart from her cat. We don’t always like her but it is hard not to hope that things will work out for her. Her chance meeting in a bar with a conman, Jack Hock (an equally stunning performance by Richard E Grant) allowed her to expand her illegal enterprise. Hock had the charm and panache that Lee was lacking and he was a perfect candidate for front man in their endeavour.
Like Woody Allen, Marielle Heller gives us an intimate portrait of a certain aspect of New York, not the city of skyscrapers and glamorous department stores; Lee’s world centres rather around the antiquarian bookshops and seedy gay bars. She mentions early on a failed relationship with Elaine (Anna Deveare Smith) and when the two meet again we can understand better the character flaw that has determined Lee’s life, a desperate need for intimacy but an inability to trust and open out to another person.
Can You Ever Forgive Me never loses our interest, not so much for the story as for the riveting performances of McCarthy and Grant. Both have already been mentioned as probable Oscar nominees [Editor – both received nominations yesterday!] and it is easy to understand why. It is refreshing to see a mainstream film that is intelligent and engaging and does not offer a forced saccharine conclusion but rather trusts its audience to make their own minds up about its flawed protagonists. Well worth seeing.