The bittersweet Can You Ever Forgive Me? does not pretend that outcast and convicted fraud Lee Israel was any more sympathetic than she really was, and that makes the film all the more sympathetic.
Films that start by telling you that they are based on a true story usually tell a story that is difficult to believe. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is no exception. This is the second feature-length film by Marielle Heller, who debuted with the well-received indie film The Diary of a Teenage Girl.
Melissa McCarthy relishes the opportunity to show that she is capable of much more than pulling faces and being foulmouthed in crude comedies like Spy, The Happytime Murders, and the female version of Ghostbusters, and she has even been nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Lee Israel.
In the early 1990s, the journalist and biographer couldn’t afford the medical bills for her cat or the rent for her apartment in New York. She devised an original solution to the problem: forging letters by literary greats like Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker and selling them for hundreds of dollars. The letters sold like hot cakes because Lee Israel would pepper them with witticisms. She was not bragging when she claimed that she wrote better Dorothy Parker letters than Dorothy Parker.
The film devotes extensive attention to her method – her flat was full of typewriters – but does not really focus on her crimes and derives little to no narrative tension from the FBI investigation. Heller spends more time tenderly painting a portrait of an outcast who loves her cat more than other people and who drowns her insecurity and loneliness in drink, cynicism, and snarling offensively at everyone who crosses her path.
Her only friend is a down-and-out dandy who lives every day as it comes, a brilliant performance from Richard E. Grant. The roughest edges have been smoothed down and Can You Ever Forgive Me? avoids excessive somberness or profundity, but nor is it a cheap lesson in morality with a forced happy ending. The outcast can simply be herself and that was a smart move.