Review: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

4.5 out of 5 stars.

A great bookstore is heaven to readers. I’m not talking about the retail chains, by the small, local shops that have been around for years and feel old and lived in, that are operated and visited by those with a real passion for the written word. No film seems to appreciate this more than “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” The drama directed by Marielle Heller may be based on the true story of author turned literary forger Lee Israel, but by way of her more indecent activities, it presents a portrait of New York, of literature, and of loneliness.

Set in New York City in the 1970s, Melissa McCarthy stars as Israel, the biographer of several celebrities who has had some success in the past but has recently fallen on hard times. No one wants to publish Israel’s next book, a biography of Fanny Brice, not just because of the content, but because the belligerent Israel isn’t willing to “play the game.” She hates people, loves cats, lives alone, won’t attend events or book signings, drinks heavily, and is rude to just about everyone. She has no friends, no family, and with her expenses adding up, she’s in desperate need of a paycheck. Lee happens to discover that there is a market for letters written by famous people- the more personal the letter, the more valuable. So she begins forging letters to sell to buyers and bookshops, adopting the voice of other writers as her own. She is soon making all the money she needs, but can’t overcome her inability to connect with others- and all good things, of course, must come to an end.

I think it’s safe to say that we are all aware that McCarthy is a great actress. Sure, she’s hilarious, but her ability to tap into another side of her and play a very serious role has always been there, and finally, with this film, she is able to unleash it to its full potential. McCarthy is magnetic as Lee, as she gives us every reason not to like this woman, but somehow makes us like her anyway- or empathize with her, at the very least. It’s heartbreaking to watch her life unravel, particularly as the film approaches its conclusion. McCarthy conveys the hesitancy of this woman who wants to reach out but is never quite able to beautifully. Also wonderful is her costar Richard E. Grant, who plays Lee’s newfound companion Jack, who is as unscrupulous as she is. Grant steps confidently into his flamboyant role and is an excellent complement to the more downtrodden Lee.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant)

The setting of the film also helps set the mood. It’s unexpectedly a lovely portrait of NYC, from the skyline to Central Park to the Brooklyn Bridge to the little bookshops that populate the film. Love for the written word, and for writers, is always apparent, spoken or unspoken, and a lot of the film’s humor and sadness is directed at fellow writers. Lee’s apartment, meanwhile is a stark contrast to the warmth and coziness of the bookstores. It’s another subtle reminder of not just the loneliness she suffers, but also possible depression because of it- take, for instance, the scene in which Jack and Lee clean her apartment for what is obviously the first time in a very long while.

Another one of the wonderful things about this film goes back to Lee, and how unapologetic she was. Yes, she did some bad things, but at least she admitted that she had no regrets. Ironically, her forgeries made her a better writer- and the story of her activities was her biggest success.

Runtime: 106 minutes. Rated R.

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