Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
Some films make you wonder why they were made, especially those with people who are difficult to care about or stories with tension curves that never rise. Can a film still work if the acting surpasses such considerations? The bio-pic Can You Ever Forgive Me (2018) suggests the answer is yes.
Based on the memoirs of notorious American literary forger Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), the film traces the writer’s descent into a life of crime. By the 1990s, Israel’s modest success as a biographer falls out of fashion and publishers are no longer interested. Her difficult personality becomes impossible as her alcoholism worsens, she loses her job, and is almost destitute. She hangs out in downtown bars with her barely more likeable and equally impecunious gay friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), filling their days with stiff drinks and banter. The film’s only lifeform worthy of sympathy is her ailing cat whose medicine Israel cannot afford, and perhaps the bookseller with simmering but unrewarded lesbian desires. As her rent arrears begin to mount, she stumbles upon a way to use her talents: forging literary flourishes onto the personal letters of famous people such as Katherine Hepburn and Noel Coward, then selling them as originals.
Over-confidence eventually catches her out. In the tight networks of the literary cognoscenti, Israel is soon blacklisted, caught, tried, and convicted. The film adds little insight or embellishment to a story already on the public record. Some viewers will wonder why a unlikeable felon gets such space on the big screen. Perhaps it is because we live in an age of alternative reality where falsehoods from high are common currency. Lies need a gullible audience and Israel found willing buyers pursuing self-interest. In today’s world, gullibility is rampant.
Whether this is an important or worthwhile story is a matter of opinion. Melissa McCarthy’s acting, however, is award-worthy. Her repertoire of facial expression ranges from a kind of sweet, harmless, vulnerability, to abject ruthlessness as she beats the system at its own game. While never likeable, there are moments when the sparkle in her eye suggests she really deserves the ill-gotten payments because it takes real talent to trick the tricksters who falsely authenticate originals.
By the end of this engaging if uneventful tale, many viewers may find themselves morally complicit in her crime. As they applaud Israel’s boast to the presiding judge about pride in her work, they are answering her post-humous question: “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Director: Marielle Heller
Stars: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dorothy Wells