Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) – dir. Marielle Heller

There’s a line I really like from Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen. As Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine kneels over a toilet bowl, throwing up all of the liquor she has consumed as Haley Lu Richardson’s Krista consoles her and holds her hair, Nadine, in tears, drunkenly inquires, “Why do you like me? don’t even like me!” The moment is both hilarious and oddly tragic, and not even the first time in the film we see Krista trying to flush away Nadine’s poor judgement. Nadine is subconsciously aware of her own self-loathing, but struggles to better herself, opting to blame others as a defense mechanism. The dilemma of Nadine is that she wants to be loved and accepted, but can’t really love or accept much of herself.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a very different film from The Edge of Seventeen, and though I’m not interested in comparing the two in terms of quality, Can You Ever Forgive Me? feels like an extension of those same themes that Craig’s teenage comedy explored so hilariously. While Marielle Heller’s biopic, adapted from Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, may not be a light-hearted teen movie for the ages, I couldn’t help but think of Nadine, vomiting her dark but fleshes out a sadder, very possible future for the Nadines of the world, who can’t help but shield themselves with a prickly veneer, or, as in Lee Israel’s case, hiding behind the voices of bona fide ghosts.

When we first meet Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), she’s working as a night auditor: a crumby job in a sterile, low-lit office, meant for people half her age, such as her decidedly disagreeable co-workers. Lee is quite possibly past her prime as a bestselling biographer. She looks a little disheveled, is whittling away on books no one wants, and is a functional alcoholic. When Lee is chided for drinking scotch at her desk by her co-workers, she rattles off something profane, only to repeat her insult in front of her supervisor, who immediately fires her. Right from the get-go, we know that Lee Israel doesn’t much belong in somewhere as blank and lifeless.

Lee also doesn’t belong with the New York socialites, whose success she resents. When Lee goes to a party thrown by her agent Marjorie (an always welcome Jane Curtain), she seems dismissive of Lee. Of course, the more we get to know Lee, Marjorie’s concerns that Lee won’t play ball and actually write something other than a Fanny Brice biography are pretty justified. But Lee would rather live with her sick cat in their pest-infested apartment, even though Lee can’t keep up with the bills for either of them. And to be sure, the New York that Lee knows is a little rougher. Heller shows us rustic, slowly disintegrating version of the city, one that seems to be falling apart. Where so many films romanticize the Big Apple, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is much more concerned with a world attempting preservation that is succeeding with varying results.

Strapped for cash to pay her cat’s vet, Lee sells an old Katherine Hepburn letter to a local bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells), and later finds an old letter from Fanny Brice while doing research that she pawns, as well. Realizing she can make a tidy sum for herself, Lee puts her tried and true talents of writing about other people to forging semi-interesting correspondence as other, very dead people, owing her cache of celebrity letters to a fictional relative who happens to have an eclectic assortment just sitting in an attic.

As Lee stokes an auspicious career impersonating late persons of note, she begins a close friendship with vagabond Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an old peer who used to run in the same circles as Lee. Both down on their luck, they find commiseration in the mischief they manage with one another–including a prank on an ill-mannered shop owner with whom Lee has an ongoing feud. The dynamic between Jack and Lee is the most endearing thread of the film. And as much fun as McCarthy and Grant are together, the rifts that come between them as the film progresses are equally disheartening. As difficult and petty as Lee and Jack can be, they bring out a a genuine tenderness in one another that is hard not to root for.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a well-crafted, often exciting sort of caper. And one can’t help but feel for Lee: Who, because of her age, her womanhood, and her queerness, is shoved off to the margins, while a hack like Tom Clancy can rake in obscene amounts of money for crumby, anonymous books. And she’s right, right? This is a line the film walks to varying results. That Lee is so frustrating is a testament to both McCarthy’s unfettered performance, as well as Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script. On one hand, Lee is consistently praised for the quality of her writing, and particularly the manner in which she captures the voices of her subjects. On the other, she is cheating fellow enthusiasts out of considerable amounts of cash. But both parties are interested in a more flattering lie than the lackluster truth. Lee wants to believe in the legitimacy of her forgeries as much as her buyers want to believe that Lee’s letters reveal idolized figures to be as dynamic and witty as they’ve presumed.

Where Can You Ever Forgive Me? stumbles is in sticking the landing. Certainly, the last stretch of the film has some emotionally potent beats, while being a little too cheeky. For sure, there’s little suspense. We know that Lee Israel has the last word; she wrote a book about grifting and has a movie about her to boot. And the film even comes down on her side. Yes, Heller acknowledges Lee’s faults, and she never suggests Lee will ever totally change for the better. For a character who is so let down for so many petty reasons, perhaps Lee Israel shouldn’t be held to the same level of responsibility as, say, Jordan Belfort–though, like Scorsese implicates Americans who aspire to be as disgustingly wealthy as crooked stock brokers in The Wolf of Wall Street, Heller is reminds us that we are, to some degree, complicit in Heller’s crimes. But Lee Israel isn’t someone who didn’t totally have a chance. Her story isn’t a tragedy. As compelling a figure as she is, and as sympathetic as she is, Can You Ever Forgive Me doesn’t quite earn good grace for Lee. That doesn’t keep the film from being sharp, funny, or as thought-provoking as it ultimately is.

Rating – 8.2/10



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