Reel Reviews | Can You Ever Forgive Me?

by Charles Kirkland Jr.

Melissa McCarthy stretches and spreads her dramatic acting skills by playing Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?.

Lee Israel is at the end of her rope. Her last book is on the clearance rack at the local bookstore. Her rent is months past due. Her cat is sick. Her agent/publicist Marjorie (Jane Curtin) is not answering her calls. Lee begins to pawn off her memorabilia in order to make some money to tide her over until she finishes her latest celebrity biography on Fanny Brice. While doing some research for her book, Lee comes across an actual letter from Brice stuck into a book. She takes the letter and sells it for a hefty price. Inspired by that event, Lee crafts an idea to author more letters of various other celebrities and sell them.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is inspired by Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name and written by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Jeff Whitty. Director Marielle Heller returns to the dark comedic roots she seeded in her directorial debut, The Diary of a Teenage Girl. The tone of the movie and the memoir seem right up the Heller’s alley.

The movie is ultimately the vehicle of comedian McCarthy who, like many who have come before her, sheds her prolific comedic abilities to undertake a more serious, weighty role. Whether the intention is just to stretch herself or to be taken more seriously (Oscar bait), McCarthy delivers well in the film. McCarthy’s Israel is off-putting and mean and has an acerbic wit and awkward penchant for isolation that killed her relationship with her ex-lover Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith), keeps possible suitor Anna (Dolly Wells) at bay and drove away all of her fans. McCarthy does an outstanding job in making the character relatable and yet unattainable and mostly unlovable. McCarthy has portrayed parts of this character in Spy, Tammy, and Identity Theif but she amplifies the snobby meanness and mutes the humor in Lee Israel to a new, unseen level.

Israel’s only friend is a majestically gay author who is even more down on his luck named Jack (Richard E. Grant) who is best known for getting too drunk at a party. Jack is the perfect match for Israel having the same intelligent and snobbish attitude toward both the literary and actual world that she does.

The movie makes no apologies as it attempts to explain the circumstances for Israel’s behavior and clearly condemns them. However, Forgive also exposes the seedy underbelly of the memorabilia market for signed artifacts and casts a doubting pall upon all autographs even those that are “authenticated.” While the FBI becomes involved in Israel’s forgeries, the story smacks of privilege in a world where privilege reigns.

Rated R language including some sexual references, and brief drug use, Can You Forgive Me? is a dreary and monotone film that allows us to see a side of McCarthy only glimpsed before. Unfortunately, the character seems too dark and unlovable to be a viable Oscar contender. While McCarthy’s performance is stellar, this copy of Israel’s life is not worth buying. Sorry.

Grade: C+