Films about writers are hard to make. Films about real-life writers impersonating multiple famous celebrities in letters bring an element of some much-welcomed lunacy that makes Can You Ever Forgive Me? more of a literary Catch Me If You Can.
The life of a biographer must be hard to deal with on a professional level. You are tasked with writing up a famous person’s life. Or telling a story of an unknown person involved in a high-profile incident. Your job is to help portray those people interesting to the public that shines up real life to sell books. You are either a hero-maker or an authority on documenting history. The only difference between “you and Tom Clancy is that people know who the hell Clancy is.”. Lee Israel chose to document her place in history by writing her own biography, Can You Ever Forgive Me? on how she sold over 400 fraudulent letters, of her own handy work, to make ends meet. Some real-life stories write themselves.
Israel was a biographer for famous actors, actresses, titans of industry, and famous journalists. She is a brilliant writer with no pull because she writes about famous people, and nothing is her own creation. After writing a well-received article in Esquire on Katherine Hepburn and biography on actress Tallulah Bankhead, she hit a career peak that made the New York Times Bestsellers list with a biography on journalist Dorothy Kilgallen. Shortly after, her career took a nosedive with a professional low, an unauthorized biography on Estee Lauder lauded by critics and readers alike.
Her literary agent Marjorie (a biting Jane Curtain), ignores her calls and requests. After being exposed to one of Israel’s trademark beratings, she bluntly tells her she is unsuccessful enough to be an a*****e. With no job, months behind on her rent, and vet bills piling up for her cat, she starts to do what she does best: forging letters from famous writers and actors. The more she writes them, the more color she adds, and the more valuable they become to the pompous, pinkie-out, fuss-pots in the literary antique world.
There’s something absurdly funny about an out-of-work biographer who makes ends meet by impersonating famous writers. This is basically what she did on the up and up for years, coloring someone’s life in the name of book sales. What makes it even more surprising is how people gobbled it up, or does it, really? The world of collectibles has always been fraught with con artists; is it more surprising that the self-proclaimed educated crowd selling these items as middlemen are really wolves in sheep’s clothing? Israel’s letters brought joy to those who read them. It just brought them joy at a price that was too much for an original work by Lee Israel.
Melissa McCarthy’s take on Israel is a curmudgeon who has fallen into depression and deals with it by dousing herself liberally with alcohol, even at her day job. She is wrapped up in her failed career. So much so she has very little understanding of even her own surroundings. Israel is mean, bordering on cruel, to almost everyone she encounters. She is so socially awkward. She has trouble returning the slightest flirtation with a local bookstore owner (Dolly Wells). Her only real friend is a fellow failed writer and somewhat of a con artist Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who drowns his own inadequacies by abusing drugs and alcohol as well. Together, they are essentially all they have. Sometimes you treat the people closest to you in an unbecoming way of your respect, which comes with that.
Grant does a fine job as a man who stays afloat by hitching his wagon to the nearest person he can leach a free meal, drink, or shelter from while slowly beginning to care for Israel as a friend. McCarthy goes beyond her usual tough but lovable comedic characters and delivers a deeply-felt sadness. She makes Israel unlovable, while at the same time, you feel sorry for her. That’s something only the best actresses can do.
Films about writers are hard to make. Films about real-life writers impersonating multiple celebrities in letters bring an element of some much-welcomed lunacy to a film that makes Can You Ever Forgive Me? more of a literary Catch Me If You Can than The End of Tour. Marielle Heller’s film is a highly entertaining ride with one of the year’s best performances from Melissa McCarthy and a terrific supporting turn from Richard E. Grant.