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Can You Ever Forgive Me? (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 5, 2020

Can You Ever Forgive Me?


Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella, Gregory Korostishevsky, Christian Navarro, Pun Bandhu, Erik LaRay Harvey, Brandon Scott Jones, Shae D’lyn, Rosal Colon, Marc Evan Jackson, Marcella Lowery, Marcella Lowery, Tina Benko, Julie Ann Emery and Towne The Cat.

Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty.

Directed by Marielle Heller.

Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures. 107 minutes. Rated R.

The world is full of fascinating, strange little stories that you almost never get to hear.

This is one of them.

Actually, the story of Lee Israel – professional writer and biographer whose career hit such straits in the early 1990s that she had to survive by forging and selling fake literary correspondences – was told by the author in the memoir of the same title as this film. Ironically, she was completely against telling her own story and had to be talked into writing it, and yet the book pretty much saved her career as a writer.

Even though the book was a best-seller, years later the story of what happened is pretty much forgotten. This film remedies that fact – in the process becoming one of the best movies of the year and starting some well-deserved Oscar buzz for comic actress Melissa McCarthy’s devastating mostly-dramatic portrayal of the writer. (If the Academy ever starts giving out animal acting awards as well, Towne the cat is also completely deserving of some Oscar gold.)

McCarthy takes Israel – who was a very prickly character, to be generous – and actually makes her kind of lovable, or at least relatable.

And, surprisingly, despite its slightly odd and obscure subject matter, Can You Ever Forgive Me? turns out to be one of the best films so far this year.

This is mostly because this film is not about the crimes of Lee Israel so much as it is about the life of the woman. An anti-social misfit who does not have the interest or the time to play the publishing game, for the first time in her life she finds herself unable to sustain herself with her writing. Her agent (it’s wonderful to see Jane Curtin again) won’t take her calls and her latest project – a biography of vaudeville actress Fanny Brice of Funny Girl fame – is quite outdated in the era of AIDS.

And frankly, 1990s New York could be a harsh place, particularly for a guarded and surly 50-something lesbian, a woman who preferred cats to people, and someone way too old to start over.

Her “crime spree” started as a fluke – a desperate attempt to pay her rent and the vet bill for her beloved cat Jersey. The first few literary letters she sold were legitimate – one personal note from Katharine Hepburn, and then two Fanny Brice letters she stumbled upon while doing research for her book and stole from the library. Then when she learned that pithy content made more money, she turned it into a job – getting multiple typewriters, studying the writing styles and histories of the celebrities. She took pride in her work, to a certain extent this was another level of her writing.

Lee was a very lonely woman, someone who could not connect easily with other people, so it was a surprise to her when she started a relationship with an extremely exuberant gay man, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who is hiding his homelessness and his HIV positive status.

Lee’s relationship with Jack is possibly the most important part of the film, two polar-opposite misfits, past their prime, trying to find companionship and make it in a New York that has become cruel and uninviting to them. Seriously, McCarthy’s work with Grant makes up for some of the best acting seen on screen this year. If McCarthy is worthy of a Best Actress nomination, Grant is just as deserving of a Best Supporting Actor nod.

Dolly Wells is also surprisingly affecting as a shy book store owner who idolizes Lee and could have become someone very special to her if not for the fact that Lee was conning her, and also had walls built up to the point that she could not let the woman in. There is also a short cameo appearance by Anna Deavere Smith as Lee’s ex that is quietly devastating.

With this slightly obscure subject matter, you might not believe that Can You Ever Forgive Me? would be as good as it is. However, I expect to see it on a lot of Best of 2018 lists.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: October 19, 2018.

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