Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a biopic about biographer, Lee Israel, and her astonishing fall from literary grace and slide into infamy. I say without hyperbole, Melissa McCarthy as the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed and abrasive Lee Israel is her best performances ever.
Lee Israel (McCarthy) is a writer of biographies. She’s a woman with little interest in her appearance, making friends, being likable or doing any of the things a writer must in order to have enough name recognition to make a living. She won’t mix or mingle and doesn’t seem to care about any other living creature; besides her cat. Her literary agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls without being tricked and early on, you’ll witness Israel torpedo her day job so spectacularly it may cause a cringe.
Director Marielle Heller has a knack for creating films set in a distinctive period with a lived-in atmosphere yet contemporary look and feel. Under her direction, McCarthy plays Israel with an openness, honesty, and vulnerable bitterness that completely disliking her becomes practically impossible; even when she’s at her sticky-fingered worst.
Israel finds herself out of a job, without an advance on her next biography and forced to part with a prized possession to make the rent.
And, this is where Israel’s life, and the film, takes an interesting turn. Israel decides to use her in-depth knowledge of famous and iconic personalities to make a living. Putting her skill at submerging her own personality behind well-crafted biographies to good use, Israel begins forging personal letters by famous people and selling them to collectors.
The film does an excellent job of balancing her turn to the criminal with a broader look at her life. Watching her developing friendship with a charming con man named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) adds layers and nuance to this story that makes her lack of empathy and inability to connect that much more tragic and compelling.
There’s even a romance that unfolds so awkwardly it reveals so much about this woman’s hang-ups and inner turmoil that it almost deserves a film all its own. Nothing feels overdone or exploitive. Perhaps because the songs featured and bar central to the story are some of Isreal’s actual favorites this film has like a lived-in experience that keeps it grounded. Lee Israel’s life takes center stage without the need of any gimmicks.
McCarthy carries this film brilliantly turning what could otherwise be a dry memoir into an outstanding tale full of dark humor, perfectly timed comedy, complex emotion, and highly engaging drama. It offers a look at a New York that’s come and gone in a fitting tribute to a complicated woman who never seemed to really find contentment even after she finally found her voice.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a captivating tale about a talented biographer turned literary forger told with such precision and skill that audiences will gladly watch as a sad, and hardly lived, life takes one hell of a turn when dire circumstances convince a surly woman to boldly (if fraudulently) dare to be great until the consequences (and the FBI) become inescapable. McCarthy is so good I’m almost ready to forgive her for Happy Time Murders…almost.
Audiences will fully enjoy all 107 minutes of the journey and be fascinated to learn about more than just Lee Israel’s crimes before all is said and done. It’s all too surreal to be anything but true; which makes it all the better.
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