Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Propelled with a dreary but realistic look of early ‘90s New York City, a caustic sense of humor, and surprisingly affecting turns, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the true story of a biographer, Lee Israel, who impersonates once famous and now deceased writers through witty correspondences and sells the forged letters—nearly four hundred of them before she got caught by the FBI—from fifty to several hundreds of dollars at a time. It is a fascinating story that is truly of its time. Perhaps most importantly, even though the character we follow is—on the surface—unpleasant, boorish, and prideful, clearly there is love and care put into the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty because we are invited to look beyond behavior and try to understand the motivations behind Israel’s criminal proclivities. We do not have to like the character because the film proves she, like her forged documents, is worth putting under a magnifying glass.

Melissa McCarthy portrays Israel with such plainness in terms of physicality that at times I’d forgotten I was a watching a performer known mostly for her comic roles. In a way, this is McCarthy’s strongest work to date because she is able to scrub off her previous personas—a number of them quite memorable (“Bridesmaids,” “The Heat,” “Spy”)—and deliver a character worthy of being taken seriously despite the crimes the protagonist commits.

She is savagely efficient, for instance, when Israel makes a sharp retort against another (a friend, an agent, a potential lover), perhaps even one that is mean or unfair, and then changes her expression a certain way as if incite us to penetrate through that small window of vulnerability. And yet—we are not meant to feel sorry for the subject. After all, she knowingly jeopardizes jobs of people who are trying to make an honest living. However, we are asked to ponder over her desperation on several levels: as a writer who fears for her failing career, as an aging woman who is single and lonely (she claims she loves her cat more than other people), and as a human being who is unable to recognize her true worth because she often gets in her own way.

I admired that Marielle Heller’s direction does not focus on a typical parabola of redemption. Yes, there are redemptive elements toward the end but notice the emphasis on the excitement Israel finds herself addicted to as she executes her schemes. Having money is secondary; this woman has yearned for so long to feel alive. Prior to her chicanery, her addiction is alcohol. It is curious how that addiction is rerouted when she feels fulfilled artistically—as ephemeral as it is. Note, too, how the performer changes the way the character carries herself and her behavior when being behind on paying bills is no longer the most immediate problem. Many parts change, in subtle ways, as the story progresses and evolves. It is not about plot but rather how it is about the plot.

I wished, however, that more forged letters were shown on screen or revealed via voiceover. The ones presented to us are funny and full of personality, but it is curious that out of hundreds we come across only about ten to fifteen. Even then, out of this handful, most of them are shown so quickly, the viewers do not get enough time to appreciate certain lines and implications. I was so curious about the details of the letters that I noticed even a paragraph break is important when it comes to making a point or delivering the punchline of a clever string of wordplay. Perhaps it was done this way to keep the drama buoyant; I would have preferred a more colorful and risk-taking approach.

Nevertheless, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a successful character study. Part of the reason are the vibrant but believable supporting performances, especially by Richard E. Grant as a drug dealer who becomes friends with Israel and eventual parter-in-crime, who sheds light on the subject’s different sides. I also enjoyed Dolly Wells as Anna, a local book dealer who becomes romantically interested in the forger. As they spend a nice time together, we wonder how it might work between someone who is genuine and someone who deals with literal fabrications.

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