Some people, smart and creative though they may be, are too scared to put their true self in front of the world. They are afraid of not being accepted. It is far easier to hold back and keep themselves out of their work. The based-on-a-true-story drama Can You Ever Forgive Me? is about such a person. Lee Israel is a writer who specializes in biographies. She is very good at her job, but disappears so well into her subjects that nobody really knows who she is. It certainly does not help that she is an alcoholic, misanthropic, shut-in who has a difficult time tolerating others. She is clearly a case of someone so terrified of failure in every aspect of their life that they would rather push everyone away than risk being rejected. The movie does not mock or pity her for who she is. It understands her and watches as she steps out from the shadows in a way she never could have anticipated.
As the story begins, Lee is behind on her rent, has a sick cat she cannot afford to take care of and is being ignored by her agent. After getting fired from her job thanks to her abrasive personality, she decides to start working on a biography of vaudeville star Fanny Brice. While doing research, she comes across a couple of personal letters of Brice’s. She sells them and learns she could have made more money if the content were more exciting. So, she begins forging letters from celebrities. Amazingly, she enjoys her new criminal activity and actually leaves her shell a little bit. That is until things inevitably go wrong.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (100 minutes, minus the end credits), based on Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, never tries to make its protagonist likable. She is mean, selfish and dishonest. Occasionally, you get a sense of the kind, lonely woman underneath, but she usually only shows that side to her beloved cat. She wants an opportunity to prove herself, yet is too anxious to take advantage of one.
Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel with sympathy and respect. She may not be someone you would want to spend time with in real life, but she is a great movie character. McCarthy’s characters are typically friendly and outgoing. Lee is neither of those things and this is not a comedy (despite moments of dark humor). This is not Melissa McCarthy doing shtick. She inhabits a fully-formed, very flawed, three-dimensional character. I have known people like this. Heck, I have been like this. McCarthy captures her perfectly, without any attempts to soften her.
Though Lee has made it a habit to never let anyone into her bubble, she makes an exception for Jack, an alcoholic drug addict who feels as out of place as she does. He is played by Richard E. Grant in a performance as flamboyant as McCarthy’s is reserved. They hit it off due to a mutual dislike of the world and a secret need to connect with another human being. Lee is pretty isolated, but there is something about Jack that draws her in (it is not romantic; both of them are gay). Grant is very good in the role. He is witty, with a charm that veers wildly from amusing to off-putting.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an entertaining character study focused on someone so fearful of rejection that they rejected the world first. It is a huge credit to the filmmakers that they allow Lee Israel to be exactly who she appears to be. She is rude, impatient and uncompromising. There is no moment of redemption for her. Everyone involved with the movie, most notably Melissa McCarthy, obviously understood that as they were putting this together. The end result is a surprisingly enjoyable portrait of a miserable person.
4¼ out of 5
Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel
Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock
Dolly Wells as Anna
Jane Curtain as Marjorie
Stephen Spinella as Paul
Ben Falcone as Alan Schmidt
Directed by Marielle Heller
Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty