Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a confidently directed film, a matter made more remarkable by the fact of the film’s subject – a writer who lacks confidence. The story follows Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, prickly), a biographer of minor repute, who, desperate to pay her bills, begins to forge letters by famous writers and celebrities from the past. Israel’s skill in disappearing into her subject when writing biographies proves invaluable in her forgeries. In many cases her versions of Noel Coward or Dorothy Parker or Katherine Hepburn prove more interesting than the real people.
Israel’s sublimation of her own voice belies a belief that her own voice isn’t of any interest to anyone. She doesn’t believe she is worthy of love, not as a person or as an artist. Sadly, we watch her push everyone away who dares to try to be her friend. Stereotypically, she thinks the only one who truly loves her is her cat, and that may be, since she and her cat are engaged in a purely transactional relationship (though we have reason to believe her cat isn’t all that fond of her either). All of Israel’s relationships are transactional, whether she’s talking with her agent, who has little time for her because Israel’s books don’t sell, or her drinking buddy, Jack Hock, with whom she trades buying rounds. In this way, Can You Ever Forgive Me? reminded me of the great TV shows of our current era, which are all about a person’s struggle for dignity in a capitalistic society. Like Walter White or Tony Soprano or Jimmy McNulty or Don Draper or Saul Goodman, Lee Israel is a one part compelling con artist, one part object of pity. As unlikeable as she is, we root for her, because we can see how the deck is stacked against her, and we all struggle to get by.
Director Marielle Heller let’s Israel and her closest companion, a down-on-his-luck writer named Jack Hock (Richard Grant, disheveled), be thoroughly unlikeable. Other than brief interactions with that cat—which feel more like metaphors for how Israel understands herself than symbols of her buried softness—we don’t get any slyly redeeming moments for either of them. Heller trusts us, the audience, to be compassionate toward Israel especially when she doesn’t deserve it. And Heller also tells the story straight without embellishing the events to make them more exciting. The movie isn’t a heist movie about how to get away with forgery. It’s a character study about an artist who feels worthless. It’s a movie that wants her eventual feelings of self-worth to be earned, not handed to her via narrative contrivance.
Lee Israel has been convinced that literary success has to look a certain way that necessarily includes being nice and sociable and doing the talk show rounds and fitting into a certain respectable mold. Israel is none of those things. She’s a brusque New Yorker. She’s a short, round woman. She’s gay. She’s not particularly pretty. She’s interested in the past, not in current, hot-button issues. She doesn’t have patience for inanity. Her love of the past is curious—and perhaps this is why the film doesn’t do much with it—as it suggests she longs for a time when things would have been better for people like her, but I don’t think the past was that way at all. If anything, her research into the lives of these famous artists suggests the opposite. Lee Israel just doesn’t fit in anywhere. As this movie is based on a book she eventually wrote, it’s hardly a spoiler to say that when she eventually finds her voice, she writes about how she doesn’t fit in and the lengths she has to go to simply survive as a writer in New York City, and she finally finds critical success in that candidness.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a funny, intelligent film. It’s also a bit cold, but it’s a chilly blast of honesty, not a lack of feeling, that animates the film. It’s a helpful reminder that the world has little room for odd-duck writers who don’t glom onto the publicity machine. It is inordinately difficult to find dignity as an artist in a world that only values material success. If you are that kind of artist, it’s a reminder that it’s important to find contentment in something other than material success if you’re going to have the wherewithal to keep on.