Before sitting down to watch Can You Ever Forgive Me?, do yourself a favour and push everything you know about Melissa McCarthy out of your mind. Yes, she’s been sidelined into outlandish, over the top comedic characters with thanks to her director husband, Ben Falcone, but with the direction of Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), McCarthy delivers the best performance of her career.
The year is 1991, and journalist turned author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has just been fired from an editing job, she’s late on her rent, has a sick cat that’s in need of veterinary care, and struggles to hear back from her agent about the Fanny Brice biography she’s been working on. The world isn’t looking particularly bright for Israel. In a bind, she sells a signed letter she received from Katherine Hepburn to make ends meet. Then, by chance, a signed letter from Fanny Brice appears as she’s doing research. Israel sells that too. Before too long, she sees the path to profit and starts forging letters from deceased writers and actors. Along the way, while boozing away the hours of the day at a dive bar somewhere in Manhattan, she meets perpetual flooze Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), and quickly a friendship flourishes.
Outwardly, Lee Israel is a difficult person. She isn’t afraid to be vocal about preferring the company of cats over the company of people. She’s a crank, and is always in arms reach of a whiskey. Yet, for all the unlikeable attributes that Lee Israel may have on paper, Marielle Heller never lets her become someone you can’t relate to. With thanks to a stunning script by Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing) and Jeff Whitty, and the superb direction from Heller, Israel is a purely empathetic character.
McCarthy’s Israel has a dry, cynical world view. At one point, Israel rants about Tom Clancy being a hack who has managed to earn millions by writing populist novels, all the while being wilfully ignorant to the way that Clancy works the system to ensure his own success. In Israel’s eyes, she should be a success simply because her writing is good enough, and the subjects she covers are interesting enough (to her, at least). The bitterness that Israel directs to the world around her theoretically should distance her from the audience, but McCarthy easily makes the social anxious Israel exceptionally relatable.
It’s powerful to see someone who is comfortable with living a life by themselves be portrayed in a way that doesn’t stigmatise them for not wanting to participate in society as a whole. There’s no doubt that loneliness is a major issue in society, but Heller reminds viewers that this is 1991 and for members of the LGBT+ community, like Lee Israel and Jack Hock, many were still ostracized from society. The AIDS crisis was looming large at the time,and Hock makes a sly joke about not being able to tell anyone Lee’s secret of forging letters, as all his friends are dead.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? shows what it’s like to live in a world full of strangers, struggling to connect with anyone, only to find that one person who understands you completely. For all the cynicism and caustic remarks thrown at each other, that‘other person’ for Lee is Jack Hock. Richard E. Grant is flawless as Hock,portraying the homeless drunk with all the verve and energy of a man with no worries. The film sings when Grant and McCarthy bounce off each other, sharing some wonderfully charming moments that are endearing and amusing.
Heller ensures to show the toll that living with someone as acerbic as Lee Israel has on someone, with Israel’s one time partner Elaine (an always welcome Anna Deavere Smith) reminding Lee why she left in the first place. There’s only so much one person can to do help someone who won’t help themselves, and Elaine reminds Lee that it’s no longer her responsibility to carry her weight for her.
Some may take issue with the fact that Lee Israel rejects the notion of going out and doing anything other than writing to make money, all the while scoffing at the idea of giving up the drink and trying to become a better person. Israel embraces who she is as a person, finding comfort in being a curmudgeon and being stubborn in the face of change. There is a slight correlation between those who engage with the arts as a career and the way society deems them to be the great unwashed, sponging off society just so they can write their stories for a small audience. One of the joys of Heller’s film is that she contextualises Lee’s story, showing the value in these story tellers who dig into the past and unearth the stories of forgotten icons, often working fora pittance.
If anything, this is an ode to the world of niche writing. Tom Clancy this is not. The letters that help keep Israel financially stable are crafted for a small group of collectors, many who initially relish the dive into the lives of the icons they hold so dearly in their hearts. Years later, after the forgeries were discovered and the punishment was laid upon Israel, a bookstore owner remarked, ‘I’m certainly not angry anymore, though it was an expensive and very large learning experience for me. And she’s really an excellent writer. She made the letters terrific.’ For all the illegal consequences of Lee Israel’s actions, it’s clear that people still held some value in these fictional dives into the lives of icons.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? had a bumpy journey to being made, with creative differences between Julianne Moore (originally cast as Israel) and then director Nicole Holofcener forcing production to halt just six days before they were set to start filming. In its own way, Lee Israel’s story is not too dissimilar to that of Fanny Brice – a person lost to time, who only a handful of people may recall, and in turn, an even smaller handful may have an interest in. Ironically, if it weren’t for the forged letters, then Lee Israel could easily have been a name that faded into the ether of history. And, in turn, if it weren’t for Nicole Holofcener and Marielle Heller, then Lee’s story may have slipped away.
Simply put, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of the finest films of the year. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant are a treat to watch dig into these great characters.
Director: Marielle Heller
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E.Grant, Jane Curtin
Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty (based on Lee Israel’s book Can You Ever Forgive Me?)