When bestselling celebrity biographer Lee Israel is no longer able to get published because she has fallen out of step with current tastes, she turns her art form to deception, abetted by her loyal friend Jack.
Review by Andy Hayler (11-Feb-2019)
“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a true-life tale of a literary forger. Biographer Lee Israel, played by Melissa McCarthy, is a writer whose biographies once sold well, but by the mid 1990s is struggling financially as her writing no longer commands the interest that it once did. She lives in a squalid Manhattan apartment with her ageing black and white cat, to which she is devoted. This is the one relationship that she is happy with, as most people she encounters are repelled by her natural rudeness and frosty demeanour, exacerbated by her heavy drinking. She strikes up a relationship with an ageing gay alcoholic and small time drug dealer called Jack, played by Richard E. Grant, who becomes her drinking companion.
Unable to pay the rent or even her vet bills, she sells one of her few possessions, a framed letter from Katherine Hepburn, one of her biography subjects. She discovers that there is a market for even quite mundane letters of famous writers, such as Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde. Lee, a talented writer despite her current woes, has the brainwave of producing such letters, written in the style of various well-known writers, and selling them to what turns out to be generally gullible bookshop dealers and collectors. She enlists the help of Jack with her scheme, and for a time the money rolls in.
Inevitably things eventually go wrong, but the point of the film is less the narrative of Lee’s life as its exploration of the characters of the two lonely, awkward characters of Lee and Jack and their strange relationship. Her encounter with bookshop owner Anna (played by (Dolly Wells), who is intrigued by Lee, is particularly poignant. What is quite a “small” tale of unsympathetic people is brought to life by a witty script and superb performances by both McCarthy and Grant, the latter in particular lighting up the screen. The film at no point outstays its welcome in its 1 hour 46 minute running time, and the tale is charming and engaging. It is hard to imagine how it could have been told much better than it has been by its director Marielle Heller.
Review by Bart Hartgring (4-Feb-2019)
I can’t say I am much of a fan of Melissa McCarthy, but after this movie it turns out that that is certainly not because of her acting, it has been because of her choice of roles and movies.
In the true story Can You Ever Forgive Me, she plays author Lee Israel who made her fame in the 60s and 70s writing profiles and biographies of people such as Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead. In the early 80s she wrote an unauthorised biography about Estée Lauder, which was widely panned and effectively ended her career. Over the following years, Lee falls on hard times and becomes a broke, lonely and bitter alcoholic. Her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) stopped answering her calls and when Lee confronts her about this Marjorie makes it clear to her that no one is interested in her next project – another biography, this time about 1920s-30s actress Fanny Brice. Stubborn as Lee is, she continues researching Brice and stumbles across an original letter written by Brice. She steals the letter and sells it, which signals the start of a much more lucrative career, forging letters of famous authors and selling these for increasingly decent money. She involves her con-artist friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who himself is a down on his luck barfly, but who possesses the charms to sell anything, and he gets better prices than Lee. Of course, there are only so many ‘lost letters’ by literary greats that can suddenly appear on the market before things turn sour again for Lee.
The script is adapted from Lee Israel’s memoir and allow the layers of Lee’s and Jack’s personal histories and their personalities to subtly emerge as the story progresses. The film is in essence watching these two characters be and interact, supported by the narrative of the forgery scheme. The only downside of this approach to the script may be that we don’t see much of the actual criminal investigation side of things – there is no real suspense about the net closing in on them. But this is not a crime thriller, it is a character study.
Both Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant deliver commendable performances. McCarthy shows she can make you root for an inherently unlikable character; she makes Lee feel like a genuine person and when she lets some of her insecurities and deeper feelings surface it is all the more telling about the abrasive persona she has developed as a defence mechanism: you just know this is a person who will never be happy or contented. Grant plays Jack Hock ‘Big Cock’ with a ridiculous flair that you somehow buy into. Lee is unlikable enough to make you wonder why Jack makes an effort – yet Grant makes you accept that he does and his charms even win over the acrid and bitter Lee. The two lonely and criminal misfits connect at a deeper level making an affective if melancholic pair.
In the end you may still not be won over by Lee Israel, her character or her motivations, but you likely will be by Melissa McCarthy’s portrayal of her. Let’s hope this gives her the confidence to in future pass on woeful movies like Spy, Identity Thief, The Boss and Ghostbusters in favour of more roles like this.