Can You Ever Forgive Me? – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? by author and convicted forger Lee Israel, this new biopic stars comedy actress Melissa McCarthy in what’s probably her least-funny role to date: a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited, alcoholic has-been author who lies, cheats, steals, and cons her way into paying each month’s rent. If it weren’t for McCarthy’s inherent likability, the character would be completely unsympathetic to most audience members.

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant star in Can You Ever Forgive Me? Photo copyright 2018 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

A best-selling biographer in the 1970s and 1980s, who wrote about actress Tallulah Bankhead , cosmetics queen  Estee Lauder , and reporter Dorothy Kilgallen, Israel’s inability to play nicely with others and adapt with the times causes her to fall out of favor by 1991. Bookstores offer her previous publications at 75% off and her literary agent (Jane Curtain) won’t return her calls. She loses her full-time job at The New Yorker because she’s drinking alcohol at her desk and spews profanity at the boss. No one is interested in her idea for a biography on singer Fanny Brice. And her aging cat is desperately ill.

Embellishment of Letters

With no money to pay for veterinary care or her monthly rent (and no friends or relatives other than her equally impoverished and alcoholic gay buddy, Jack [Richard E. Grant]), Israel begins embellishing letters by prominent authors and selling them to specialty book sellers. This embellishment of adding an interesting postscript soon turns into completely fabricating letters by literary greats (including Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker), and then eventually into stealing original letters from archival sources and replacing them with her forgeries.

Her crimes appear to be natural extensions of who she was personally and professionally before alcohol and desperation took control of her thinking. She has no qualms about misrepresenting her identity on the telephone or stealing someone else’s clothes from the coat rack. She’s always been fascinated with the writings and performance styles of famous people and expresses that through her biographies. Her offences escalate from petty theft and deception into crimes so serious the FBI becomes involved in tracking her down.

Melissa McCarthy Excels

McCarthy provides some outstanding work here, as someone who’s in denial about her situation and considers her criminal activities to be “literary treasures” and her life’s greatest work. Alone, afraid, and on the brink of disaster, Lee Israel is not a person most of us would like in our lives.

Her prickly personality, drinking, and deception have created her dire circumstances. She created this mess entirely by herself, and yet McCarthy reveals the character’s humanity hiding beneath the off-putting exterior. Grant offers a fine performance as well – another pathetic character whose bad judgment causes his formidable problems.

Even with occasional laughs, this film portrays a seedy story inhabited by people who are their own worst enemies. It’s a sad tale, but certainly one worth telling.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

  • Fired from her job and virtually unemployable because of her alcoholism and abrasive personality, former best-selling author Lee Israel turns to crime to pay her bills in this true story based on the memoir of the same name.
  • Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Jane Curtain, Stephen Spinella, Gregory Korostishevsky
  • Director: Marielle Heller
  • Genre: Crime / Briography
  • Run Time: 106 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use)

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.