Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? proves the maxim that all it takes to make a good movie is a compelling story and some good actors in the lead. Marielle Heller’s biopic on the life of disgraced and misanthropic biographer and literary counterfeiter, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), doesn’t have much of a visual flair and isn’t reinventing the way stories are told. You know the broad strokes of the story even if you’ve never heard of Lee Israel, but that doesn’t take away from the film’s considerable pleasures.
Works like this succeed not off surprise, but off articulation, like a classic joke told on the stage—a skilled performer can bring it to life and make it sing, even if its insights are well-worn truisms by this point. Melissa McCarthy proves to be said performer with her most-dramatic role to date, one that’s a naked attempt at Oscar glory, but who cares if the role is so good?
As has become the convention in biopics since Lincoln, Can You Ever Forgive Me? restricts its portrait of Lee to a limited window of her life, in this case, the few years in the early 1990s when she engaged in counterfeiting literary letters by writers like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. We meet her as a disgruntled biographer working on the life story of Fanny Brice that no one wants to buy. Lee is an outcast on all accounts: she’s misanthropic, alcoholic, and lesbian, with no friends and a cat as the most significant individual in her life.
Soon she meets a fellow louse and LGBT outcast, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), and finds a reluctant friend and drinking partner. To get out of a financial bind, she sells a personal letter from Katharine Hepburn and finds that there’s money in letters from famous people. She also learns that the spicier the letter, the higher the value, so she starts forging letters herself, using her skill as a literary mimic to copy the voices of her favourite authors and make a living in the process.
The actual scenes of writing the letters aren’t very interesting; as is the case with almost every film about writing, writing is too internal to make compellingly cinematic. (Most great films about writing are about writer’s block, such as Barton Fink, while arguably the only film to convincingly capture the process of writing and its agony is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.) We hear Melissa McCarthy's voiceover reading the letter as she writes it and we get some close-ups as she types on the typewriter. But writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and director Marielle Heller focus more on people’s reactions to the letters themselves, which is a smart decision as it allows us to enjoy the effect of Lee’s witty writing and get some insight into why she does this work, aside from the money.
The thing is, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a crime film nor a con artist saga like Ocean’s Eleven or even The Hoax. We don’t get that much detail about the crimes themselves and Heller and company clearly have interests other than reveling in her criminal enterprise. We see snippets of the different typewriters she uses to mimic different authors and we watch as she steals a real letter as she grows more desperate later in the film, but the interest here is the kind of person who would turn to such a strange criminal action, not the action itself.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? isn’t about Israel’s writing, nor the crimes she commits, nor even her role as an outcast due to being a lesbian. It’s really about misanthropy and the dramatic irony of a misanthropic writer. It explores the fascinating dynamic of a person who hates other people—who admittedly likes cats more than humans—but who also craves the adulation of other people through her writing. The workaround Lee discovers is that if she writes as another person, she can get the adulation she needs without making herself vulnerable. Thus, it makes sense that the film pays so much attention to this adulation from others. It’s not the money she gets from the buyers that makes her happy. It’s the words of praise about what a good letter she has for them.
Of course, the film goes a touch too far in this respect by making one of the buyers, Anna (Dolly Wells), a potential love interest for Lee. There’s a date scene where Lee pushes Anna away and deflects any personal warmth that smacks a bit too much of audience manipulation, overplaying its hand to emphasize what a sad person Lee is. But there are thornier moments in the film that more subtly capture this portrait of a loner, such as when she cringes at the touch of her lawyer during the closing courtroom scene or how she brutally mistreats her friend, Jack, even though he’s the only source of regular affection in her life.
Speaking of Richard E. Grant as Jack, the film’s greatest pleasures are watching him and McCarthy go at it during their nights out together. Both are comic performers with acid wit and the propensity of bulldogs to smash anyone in their way in the aim of landing a joke. Although the broad contours of Lee and Jack’s friendship fit the standard, misshapen odd couple found in all manner of Hollywood comedies, it’s hardly an issue, as they’re a genuine delight to watch together.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? only partially mines the dramatic possibility of its central irony, but it’s also a hoot as a buddy comedy, so I don’t mind that the drama doesn’t transcend the cliches it uses. It has good performances and a compelling narrative and even if it’s never groundbreaking, the fact that it never missteps too broadly more than makes up for its narrative familiarity.
7 out of 10
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018, USA)
Directed by Marielle Heller; written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on the book by Lee Israel; starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella.