In the sly drama Can You Ever Forgive Me? (★★★★), Melissa McCarthy’s talent and instincts for locating a truly odd character and magnifying that persona for the big screen pays off royally. Portraying the late real-life author and convicted forger Lee Israel, who was also lesbian, McCarthy dons a disheveled wig and overcoat, and digs in deep for a fascinating story of crime and friendship.
Lee Israel made a name for herself as a writer in the ’70s and ’80s by publishing well-received biographies of early 20th-century figures like actress Tallulah Bankhead and media personality Dorothy Kilgallen. But Israel’s unauthorized 1985 biography of cosmetics queen Estée Lauder flopped when Lauder counter-punched by releasing her own best-selling memoir.
That move pretty much ended Israel’s career — she tried to keep the magic going with a planned biography of Fanny Brice, but eventually turned to copy editing to make ends meet. To keep herself going, she also turned to drink. It’s in that state of defeat that the film first finds her in 1991, a bitter, scotch-guzzling curmudgeon with a sick cat and a biting wit.
Depleting her disposition of all the mirth and sunniness that’s helped make her famous, McCarthy is a mighty convincing curmudgeon. She still earns laughs, despite Israel blowing around Manhattan like an ill wind, always just one rude word or look away from laying a verbal smackdown on whomever crosses her. It’s unclear at first whether director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) means to depict New York as a brutally hostile town, or merely as a place that reflects Israel’s rampant hostility back at her.
A visit to Israel’s literary agent Marjorie, wonderfully played by the great Jane Curtin, clarifies things a bit. Marjorie explains to her unruly client that she’d better come up with a subject more commercial than Fanny Brice and try to not be such a raging pain in the ass all the time. But rather than track the course of some unlikely Scrooge-like transformation towards gleeful benevolence, the film stays true to who Lee Israel is and understands herself to be: She’s a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, and she ain’t changing for anybody.
She wouldn’t, or couldn’t, change to please her longtime girlfriend, Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith), who dumped her, and she has no intention of changing course on her planned Brice biography. That turns out to be the first in a series of fatefully bad decisions. For, while researching the Funny Girl, she finds a letter actually written by Fanny Brice tucked inside a library book and pilfers it.
Israel promptly sells the purloined letter to a collector, bookstore owner Anna (Dolly Wells), who not only is a fan of Israel’s books but might be a fan of Israel, too. Most importantly, Anna informs her that a letter by Brice, or any celebrity, is worth more to collectors if the contents are intimate, or truly express the sender’s personality. That’s all Israel needs to hear to decide that she can come up with a more sellable letter by forging one. So begins her illustrious career as a high-end dealer of fake literary collectibles, or “elite literary artifacts,” as Israel likes to claim.
She forges and sells letters by everyone from Marlene Dietrich and Noël Coward, to Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. Her creative forgeries, and the ensuing robust sales, satisfy her ego as a writer and as a burgeoning criminal mastermind. And the movie, based on Israel’s own memoir, aptly conveys the accompanying rush she feels with every collectible sale. In her letter-forging hubris, she comes to think she’s “a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.” Even if the audience knows she’s doomed, the fun is infectious while it lasts.
Like so many criminals who get caught, Israel can’t help spilling about her “brilliant” crimes to the exact wrong person. That’s one Jack Hock, a middle-aged ne’er-do-well she befriends over daytime drinks at old-school West Village gay bar Julius’. Played with a devilish twinkle in his eye by Richard E. Grant, Hock is a much better drinking buddy than a partner-in-crime. Once he gets involved in helping Israel deal her forgeries, the situation flies quickly out of hand. Collectors around town catch on, as does the FBI.
At stake is their freedom and their friendship. Outside of her cat, Israel has no one else. She and Hock are kindred spirits in their melancholy misanthropy, but not without a sense of promise, and romance for the city they both love. The movie stirs those senses, with its tender piano score by Nate Heller, brother of the director, and a soundtrack of jazz standards that wouldn’t be out of place in a Woody Allen picture.
Solidly scripted by filmmaker Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, the Tony-winning book writer of Avenue Q, the film invites the audience to soak up the atmosphere of a bygone New York, while forging their own opinions of the disgraced Lee Israel. Was she an inspired artist, or an unforgivable thief and liar? And, with her memoir, and now this film, did she finally, improbably, have the last word?
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is rated R, and opens Friday, Oct. 26, at Landmark’s E Street and Bethesda Row Cinemas. Visit landmarktheatres.com.