CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, and Dolly Wells. Directed by Marielle Heller. Rated M (Coarse language and sexual references). 106 min.
This American biographical drama is based on a “confessional” memoir of the same name written by Lee Israel in 2008. It tells the story of a talented, heavy-drinking writer, who decides to energise her failing literary career by forging letters from authors and playwrights who have died. The title of the movie is drawn from the writings of the American satirist and poet, Dorothy Parker.
Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy) made her living by writing the profiles of high achieving women from the 1960s to the 1980s, and she discovers, much to her disappointment, that no one seems interested any longer in publishing her work. For those in the publishing game, her writing style had become dated.
Depressed and insecure, and in desperate need of money to pay the rent of her Manhattan apartment, Lee takes a letter of hers that has been written by Katherine Hepburn, and finds to her surprise that it fetches a lot of money. She does the same with another letter she finds (or steals) that is from Fanny Brice. She then starts forging and selling letters that appear to have been written by deceased writers, actors, and playwrights, and she imbeds into her forgeries the type of content that she thinks will attract a higher price. By the 1990s, she has forged hundreds of letters, and all her debts are paid. Her partner in crime is a gay confidant, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who becomes her drinking companion. For both Lee and Jack, forging celebrities boosts their egos, but also delivers a sizeable amount of money.
When the authenticity of one of Lee’s letters becomes an issue, suspicions of forgery start to surface, and dealers are warned about buying any letters she brings to them. Lee reacts to what is happening by asking Jack Hock to sell forgeries for her. The FBI moves in on Jack, who tells them that Lee put him up to it. Lee is sentenced to six months house arrest and five years probation. When her sentence is served, she reconciles with Jack, who is fighting Aids. At Lee’s request, Jack gives her permission to write a book about her experience as a forger-er, and it is this book on which the present movie is based.
Melissa McCarthy is best known for the films she has made as an irrepressible comedienne who throws herself body and soul into physical, situational comedy that is typically accompanied by biting repartee. Examples of her comedy work are “Life of the Party” (2018), “Spy” (2015), and Bridesmaids” (2011) for which she received an Oscar nomination. Her role in this movie is a remarkable change of pace. Here, she very credibly inhabits the character of Lee Israel to capture the turbulent character of Israel’s real-life personality, and Richard E. Grant impressively plays her partner in crime. Both Lee and Jack are lonely outsiders, separated psychologically from the world around them. Along the way, an intriguing relationship is established between Lee and a bookshop owner, called Anna (Dolly Wells), but the film only skims its surface.
The film’s scripting captures Lee Israel’s caustic wit which tallies with McCarthy’s natural flair for biting repartee, and the movie nicely communicates the dramatic irony of the fact that an author’s best works can be judged as worthy despite the fact they are clever forgeries of the words of others. While forging celebrity letters of famous people, McCarthy effectively displays the loneliness of someone who knows that genuine fame can’t result from self-deception and illicit pretence, but she is proud, as a writer, of what she has added to her celebrities’ words.
This is a factually-based film about the nature of fame which communicates telling insights about creative insecurity, and it successfully highlights McCarthy’s impressive acting ability, which has earned her a Golden Globe nomination as Best Actress in a 2018 drama motion picture. McCarthy captures the essential vulnerability of Israel, and the role gives her the opportunity to engage in witty verbal thrusts that are her usual forte. The film is further helped by a soft musical jazz soundtrack, and a convincing re-creation of the 1990s period-atmosphere of NewYork City.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting
Twentieth Century Fox Films
Released December 6th., 2018