“I’m a 51-year-old who likes cats better than people.” That’s how Lee Israel describes herself in Marielle Heller’s film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” It’s a biopic with Israel as its subject and an adaptation of her 2008 memoir of the same name. It follows her experience as a struggling writer who ends up making ends meet by forging coveted letters from famous deceased authors.
Melissa McCarthy makes a welcomed dramatic turn playing Lee Israel who has fallen on hard times after her writing career stalls. She’s a depressed and cash-strapped alcoholic who can’t keep a job and owes months of back-rent on her filthy Manhattan apartment. She can’t get an advance for a new book because she has burned every bridge her agent (a wonderful Jane Curtin) has laid down for her.
You know where things go from here. A desperate Lee begins forging old letters and selling them to bookstores around the city. The true story goes that she sold over 400 documents, a remarkable crime streak that would seem impossible to pull off. The real Lee Israel was an unrepentant sham and the film definitely captures that. But Heller makes an obvious attempt to lace Israel’s story with sympathy.
McCarthy gives a good performance although it doesn’t require as much range as it may seem. She burrows down into Israel’s unlikability and isn’t asked to go much further. She still manages to give us an good character with several interesting layers. Take what is probably her deepest character flaw – the near arrogant insistence that she is a great writer and everyone needs to recognize it. At one point she states “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”. And the film offers no grand transformation. She maintains this stance to the very end even finding a way to use it to rationalize her crimes.
Richard E. Grant is getting a lot of attention for playing Lee’s only non-feline friend Jack. Grant is effortlessly good in what is a flamboyant and pretty showy performance. Jack is a fellow boozer and much like Lee he’s far from the most likable person. McCarthy and Grant have really nice chemistry and that makes for some entertaining back-and-forths between two otherwise shady people. Unfortunately I began to sour on their banter after a while.
Even though we know how things are going to end, Heller along with screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty give us enough to sink our teeth into. But it’s McCarthy who pulls off the impossible. She not only has us caring (to some degree) about such an unpleasant curmudgeon but also (in one way or another) she has us relating to her as well. That can’t be an easy task and it’s just enough to carry the film over the finish line.
VERDICT – 3 STARS