Can You Ever Forgive Me?

**1/2

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Richard E Grant and Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me?
"McCarthy plays this unlikable character deftly and with aplomb. And yet the story is stuck in the mud so deep that you can almost smell the decay."

The Diary Of A Teenage Girl director Marielle Heller's latest film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, stars Golden Globe Best Actress in a Drama nominee Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and is based on Israel's autobiography with a screenplay co-written by Jeff Whitty (original book for Michael Mayer's Head Over Heels and Tony winner for Avenue Q) and Nicole Holofcener.

Lee Israel, hard-drinking and down on her luck professionally as well as privately, has just been fired from her job. Her cat is sick, she is overdue with the rent for her New York Upper West Side apartment, and her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) avoids her because she believes that a biography of Fanny Brice might not be such a hot seller. It is the early Nineties after all. In dire need of money, Lee decides to sell one of her prized possessions, a thank you letter from Katharine Hepburn she has framed on the wall.

Copy picture

Enter Anna (Dolly Wells, co-star of Doll & Em with Emily Mortimer), the proprietor of a bookshop she inherited from her father. The shy woman happens to very much like Israel’s writing and is a bit star-struck when the writer enters her store in person, Hepburn letter in hand. The first sale is soon followed by two more letters by Fanny Brice that Lee “found” in a book in an archive, which sets in motion a career nobody could have predicted.

Suddenly, witty, smart letters and notes by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward appear on the market. They sparkle with the grace of an era gone by and prove irresistible to collectors - for a while. Anna, who would like to get to know Lee better, doesn’t know what she is up against. Two duped bookstore owners Alan and Paul are played by Ben Falcone (McCarthy's real-life husband) and Stephen Spinella.

Certain conspicuous details anchor the story, others derail it. Lee swipes on dark rusty Nineties lipstick to go to Marjorie's literary party, one she wasn't invited to. This is her way of making a half-accusatory effort. The evening ends with her heading home with someone else's coat. She will wear it throughout the rest of the movie, except for, as Dolly Wells pointed out to me, the scenes with Lee and her agent.

McCarthy plays this unlikable character deftly and with aplomb. And yet the story is stuck in the mud so deep that you can almost smell the decay. The dreariness is suffocating. At times it feels as if a number of extras from a late Eighties Woody Allen film, dressed in shabby tweed jackets and torn shirts, tumbled into the light from a quarter century of sleep behind a dusty bookshelf.

Lee's misery is palpable. She only has $14.00 and can't afford for the vet to look at her sick cat. The Crosby Street second-hand book dealer offers a measly $2.00 for what she brings in and she sees her own works advertised at a 75% discount. And of course the landlord is after her. This is partly wrongheadedly played for laughs and solace is found for Lee in a bar where she meets Jack Hock, a drug dealer who may or may not have a place to stay and who will become her drinking buddy and co-conspirator.

Golden Globe Best Supporting Actor nominee Richard E Grant plays Jack soaked in vintage despair and with a gallows humour that could work if the actions taken weren't so despicable. Together, Lee and Jack drunkenly play a trick on the "mean" bookseller who didn't buy her old books. They make a prank phone call, telling him that his building is on fire with this dog inside, laughing hysterically when the man rushes out of the store to rescue his pet.

Scenes like this make you wonder if maybe it wasn't the fact that "there's nothing sexy about Fanny Brice" as Marjorie puts it, that made her want to get rid of her client, but simply her meanness. "I'm a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker," says Lee, and yes, we do root for her to get her feet on the ground, simply in the hopes that she might behave like a nicer person. Anna Deavere Smith, who plays Israel's ex Elaine, comes in late and you cannot blame her for having left.

For the tone and the mood, the despondent and the unruly rule. Lee's place is a mess and smells so bad that people hold their noses and gag when she opens the door. She is used to it and puzzled by the reaction. All you have to do is look under the bed.

Reviewed on: 06 Jan 2019
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Can You Ever Forgive Me? packshot
The true story of Lee Israel who became a literary forger.
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Angus Wolfe Murray *****

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London 2018

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The letter writer