How do you craft a character study about a cantankerous alcoholic and her criminal schemes, and fill it with compassion and warmth? Just ask the creators of Can You Ever Forgive Me?
This biopic of fledgling author and notorious celebrity forger Lee Israel isn’t the redemption story suggested by its title — which is also the name of her memoir on which the film is based. Rather, it seamlessly intertwines the story of its unscrupulous protagonist with a nostalgic tribute to a bygone literary age.
The film begins in 1991, when Lee (Melissa McCarthy) has hit a low point in her career. Her biographies are no longer in demand, she gets fired from a proofreading job, and she can’t even afford to take her beloved cat to the veterinarian. Her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t even take her calls.
Almost by accident, she hatches an illegal plan to defraud collectors by forging handwritten and typed personal letters from deceased literary figures such as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker — selling them without the need to provide authenticity because her work is so convincing.
Lee’s ill-tempered personality leaves her with few friends, although she finds a confidant in a failed gay writer (Richard E. Grant) whose circumstances are even more desperate than her own. He joins Lee’s criminal enterprise before suspicions inevitably arise.
McCarthy proves an ideal fit for the role, which utilizes her more subtle comic talents while providing a vehicle to showcase her dramatic talent, as well. It’s a welcome shift away from the low-brow projects to which she’s too often been confined in recent years. Grant (Withnail and I) brings scene-stealing energy as the reluctant foil.
Needless to say, Lee is a difficult character to embrace. However, the film manages to generate sympathy not by condoning her behavior but by providing broader context for her struggles. While many of her problems are self-inflicted, they’re exacerbated by technological advancements and fickle artistic tastes that have rendered her livelihood obsolete.
As directed with visual flair by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), the film lacks much insight into Lee’s background prior to her downfall yet compensates by immersing moviegoers into the eccentricities of the early 1990s New York memorabilia scene.
Such satirical jabs are lighthearted and charming, just like the film itself, making its flaws easier to forgive.