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Forging a Way to Success: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Updated on November 24, 2018


In the early years of her career, Lee Israel enjoyed success writing magazine articles and biographies of early twentieth century figures such as Fanny Brice and Estee Lauder. By the early 1990s, though, she had fallen out of favor in the literary world, and struggled to find other means of support. In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Lee (Melissa McCarthy) has lost her job reading copy when her supervisor catches her drinking at her desk and swearing at her much younger co-workers. With little money in hand and bills to pay, she sells some of her possessions, including a hand-written letter to her from Katharine Hepburn. When she uncovers a couple of letters written by Fanny Brice, she returns to Anna (Dolly Wells), who purchased her Hepburn letter. Anna suggests that Lee could get more money were she selling writing with content that reflects the personality of the person who wrote the letter. Lee takes that advice and learns how to create realistic-looking correspondence, fooling many document experts as she peddles her product.

While celebrating one sale in a bar, she meets Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a charming street hustler who becomes curious about Lee's new enterprise. Once they become friends, she shows Jack what she does, using her knowledge about deceased celebrities and a bit of research to dupe buyers. Lee eventually lets Jack move into her apartment. Things start to go wrong, though, when one of the buyers has questions for Lee. He had sold a customer one of her Noel Coward letter, which the recipient claims is not authentic due to certain personal content that Coward had been careful to not reveal. Before long, the FBI gets involved and faxes a picture of Lee to memorabilia buyers, advising them to beware of the items she wishes to sell. Lee becomes aware of this, and starts to send Jack in her place. She plans her next move, which involves going to the Yale library and stealing letters from their archives as she produces a contract for a book she claims she'll be writing. Things go wrong at the apartment with Jack alone, and she angrily evicts him for one careless act in particular. Still, she knows she needs him to continue their business.


Israel eventually wrote of these exploits, which became the basis of this amusing film from director Marielle Heller. In addition to her inability to get an advance for any book, Lee sadly discovers that the subjects she once covered no longer hold interests for 1990s readers or literary agents. Constant drinking and a refusal to create a more pleasant image don't help her in her efforts to get anything published - or even written. She complains to her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), about the money Tom Clancy got for work neither of them likes, but Lee won't take Marjorie's advice about changing. Because of the path she takes next, she complicates the new friendships she happens to make. Heller, whose previous (and debut) feature as a director was The Diary Of A Teenage Girl in 2015, gets a smart screenplay adaptation from veteran writer-director Nicole Holofcener and playwright Jeff Whitty, making his screenplay debut here. They make their lead characters compelling without glossing over their misdeeds or personalities. The final scene of the movie is one of the funniest, and involves Lee's interaction with somebody who has come into possession of one of her forgeries.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? marks the best feature performance from McCarthy that I have seen. She shows Lee Israel as both creative and vulnerable. She'll put the effort into creating a fake history, but not into the real Lee Israel. She creates her own cottage industry from her apartment and the bar where she and Jack like to drink. She uses her TV set as a way to trace the signatures of Coward and others, and orders stationery with Dorothy Parker's name and California address on it to make her work convincing. All of this addresses her finances, but creates new problems. Grant, as Jack, seizes on the chance to be in league with Lee, but he shows he doesn't like taking orders, or even playing fairly with Lee, who catches him trying to take more than their agreed share of the proceeds. Jack, like Lee, is someone with few options, since he has no qualms about lying to get ahead, and people better acquainted with him know that. McCarthy's husband, Ben Falcone, has a role as Alan Schmidt, a buyer who knows Lee's game, and attempts to blackmail her so he'll stay silent.


In the final credits, viewers see for themselves what Israel did, and the extent to which her forgeries worked. Can You Ever Forgive Me?, by its title, may suggest contrition, but her words show that Lee Israel's contrition was hardly a full one. She took a bit of pride in her ability to be convincing, and to make money from her writing once again. Can You Ever Forgive Me? proves the adage about being able to fool some of the people some of the time. While the filmmakers don't condone Lee Israel's actions, they admire her creativity with their humorous insight. No matter what she did, Israel found that her actions came with a cost.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Can You Ever Forgive Me? 3.5 stars. Practicing to deceive.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? trailer

© 2018 Pat Mills


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