“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a nice change of pace for Melissa McCarthy, who reins it in nicely as Lee Israel, an author who was arrested for forging signatures of other more famous authors and selling them as authentic. Virtually a two-person ensemble, nice support is provided by Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock.
Aside from the two leads, who actually do the selling to unsuspecting buyers via bookstores in New York City that specialize in such matters, Dolly Wells plays one such bookstore owner (Anna), Jane Curtin (“Saturday Night Live”) plays Marjorie, Lee’s crusty agent, and Anna Deavere Smith (Gloria on television’s “Nurse Jackie”) portrays Elaine, Lee’s old friend and roommate, who has left her saying, “It’s not my job any more to talk you off the ledge. It’s exhausting.”
Lee is portrayed as a failed writer who specialized in biographies (“Estee Lauder: Beyond the Magic,” “Miss Tallulah Bankhead,” “Kilgallen”). She repeats several times that she is working on a biography of Fanny Bryce, a subject that her agent finds less than appealing.
Because Lee is not doing well in the business of writing biographies of other more famous writers, she and her only friend and companion, her cat Jersey (Towne the Cat) fall upon hard times and people say things to her like, “You’re a clever woman. Figure it out” or “You go out there and find another way to make a living.” And so she does, but she runs afoul of the law and ultimately is sentenced to 5 years probation and 6 months of house arrest. [Plus, Nora Ephron sends her a cease and desist letter telling her to stop impersonating her on the phone.]
Melissa McCarthy really inhabits the sad life of this 51-year-old writer-turned-forger. Lenore Carole Israel (known as “Lee”) died on December 24, 2014 at the age of 75, leaving no mourners, no family and, in addition to magazine work which largely sustained her through the seventies, three books of unauthorized biographies of women whose fame had largely passed with the passage of time. After her apprehension for the over 400 literary forgeries, Lee wrote a best-seller, “Can You Ever Forgive Me: Memoirs of a Literary Forger,” which did well, and the film version, directed by Marille Heller (written by Nicole Holofcemer and Jeff Whitty) was cast, originally, with Julianne Moore. Although Julianne Moore is an accomplished actress, the part seems more suited to Melissa McCarthy and she does a great job with it.
Those responsible for such great song selections include the overall Music Supervisor (Jack Paar), who selected songs like “I’ll Be Seeing You” and Paul Simon’s “I can’t run, but I can walk much faster” to give us the appropriate mood. Six others assisted (Adam Bennati, Ted Caplan, John M. Davis, Brad Haehnel, Nicholas Neidhart and Areli Qurarte).
Writers Nicole Holofcemer and Jeff Whitty have given us a very witty script, which is augmented by the funny letters that Lee created. When Lee meets an old acquaintance, Jack Houk (Richard E. Grant) in a bar and they begin sharing stories of their downward trajectory in the literary world, Jack says his agent, Julia Steinberg, died. Then, he adds, “Maybe she didn’t die. Maybe she moved back to the suburbs.” One of Lee’s fabricated autographs, ostensibly from Fanny Bryce, says, “I have a new grandkid and he got my old nose. Do I have to leave him a little something extra for repairs?” Lee and Jack continue meeting in bars throughout the film and, at one point, Lee shared that this is a celebratory drinking session, not a whining one. Jack responds, “It’s hard to tell the difference with you.” As she is about to reveal her new line of work forging famous people’s signatures, Lee asks Jack, “Can you keep a secret?” to which he responds, “I’ve no one to tell. Everyone I know is dead.”
Brandon Trost was the cinematographer. He does a great job depicting a hopeless, lonely, drab apartment and the dive-y bars that its occupant inhabits. He also did some interesting things with his camera, as in one blurry-into-focus shot in a bar. The moody sets, dimly lit, and the nice choice of music all play into giving the film a thoroughly authentic feeling of alcohol-fueled desperation.
I had overdosed on films about addicted teenagers, so this film was like a breath of fresh air. I will admit that I (also) took in “Flammable Children,” an Australian comedy featuring Guy Pearce and Julian McMahon to try to lighten the mood, but, after 3 drug addiction movies in a row, that mood was pretty low.
If you enjoy witty badinage and a well-written, well-photographed, script with great acting, this could be your guilty pleasure. It was mine, in Chicago on October 14th. You’ll enjoy seeing funny woman Melissa McCarthy in a brand new light. She is one of the four highest-paid actresses in Hollywood and is a native of Plainfield, Illinois.