Based on a true story and a memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? follows Lee Israel, a biographer turned forger and her exploits across the collector book scene, in ‘90s New York City. One of the best films of 2018, Can You Ever Forgive Me? operates somewhere between a buddy comedy and Catch Me If You Can.
Lee wrote works on Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder. She was a crafty writer and careful researcher but often selected subjects who lacked commercial appeal. Can You Ever Forgive Me? picks up after Lee’s (Melissa McCarthy) latest failure, her biography on Lauder. Cursing at her coworkers and drinking on the job, Lee is fired from her day job as an editor. Audiences quickly realize that Lee was only suited for life behind a typewriter, alone except for her cat. Unable to secure an advance from her publisher on a biography about Fanny Brice, Lee falls behind on her rent and cannot afford medical care for her aging cat, Jersey.
Frustrated by her situation and suffering from writer’s block and alcoholism (two prominent tiles in a game of stereotypical author bingo), Lee sells a prized possession—a personal letter to her from Katharine Hepburn—at a local bookstore. Doing research for her biography on Brice, Lee stumbles upon, steals, and sells a letter written by Brice. Deciding to sell this one too, Lee receives a smaller sum for Brice’s letter because of its lack of personal intrigue. Like the opening of a cash register, something clicks with Lee. With her wit and literary knowledge, Lee begins to forge scandalous letters by writers whom she considered her intellectual equal. Before long, Lee is off to races snatching up antique typewriters, vintage paper, and new peddlers for her fraudulent goods.
Early in the film, Lee, down on her luck, runs into acquaintance Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), also down on his luck, in a bar (where else?). Jack, part witty member of the New York underground, part conman, part drug dealer, becomes Lee’s partner in crime. With this pairing, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an ode to its subject and her best friend. McCarthy and Grant put in career performances, and acknowledgment in the form of a Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor nominations from the Academy seems necessary.
Director and relative newcomer Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) does fine work with a script penned by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Heller will be a name to watch going forward, as she’s currently on board to direct the upcoming Tom Hanks Mr. Rogers project, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. At the very least, Heller deserves tremendous credit for her work with the film’s visuals. Gloomy New York, decrepit old Jersey (the cat, not the state), and Lee’s combination of wool sweaters and whiskey on the rocks will leave you feeling like Hemingway himself.
Throughout the film, Lee is constantly measuring herself against the likes of Nora Ephron and Tom Clancy, two of her agent’s other clients. Lee envies Clancy in particular because he is wildly successful despite, what Lee perceives, is a lack of talent, and, ironically, an air of fraudulence. Lee’s bitterness and misanthropy can be traced to the fact that she believes herself to be more talented than Clancy and his ilk while the world fails to recognize that. There is something to be said of Lee’s fake letters fetching a higher price than the real McCoy, but, more than anything, Lee is a victim of her own inaccessibility. Lee imitated, forged, and sold more than 400 letters under the guise of multiple writers and actors. She impersonated and profited off of the likes of Noël Coward, Fanny Brice, and Dorothy Parker. In Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the only author Lee couldn’t sell was herself.