Can You Ever Forgive Me? drops you off at its end with a massive sense of ambivalence. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) really is asking for forgiveness, and in the literary world, as well as the rest of society, she’s done something rotten. She’s forged and sold letters which she’s attributed to famous literary figures – Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, William Faulkner, the actress Louise Brooks, and others. Before she’s caught, Israel makes a pretty good living on her scheme. But the issue goes deeper than forged literary curiosities; forgery undercuts the trust that societies need to function.
The title of the movie comes from the confessional book that Lee Israel wrote after she was caught and served her sentence, which was a combination of probation and community service. She didn’t sit in prison, but she was certainly disgraced.
Marielle Heller’s film makes no excuses for Lee Israel and never paints her exploits as anything like fun. Can You Forgive Me? is no rollicking moral tale like Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street that makes you wonder if all those drugs, parties and temporary money may have been worth the pain that followed. For the audience, Lee Israel’s life in this movie is full of unrelenting sadness.
When the film opens, Israel gets fired from a magazine job, basically for rudeness. She’s published two moderately successful biographies, but her agent thinks the latest idea is a dud. Israel is months behind on the rent for a cluttered, dingy apartment; the vet won’t treat her beloved cat until Israel pays overdue bills.
Cinematographer Brandon Trost puts Israel in a dark world. There’s little sunlight. The only bright spot is the office where Israel’s agent tells her that her book idea is a non-seller, and no one wants to work with her anyway because she’s too nasty. So, Israel mostly seeks out dark places, like a long narrow Manhattan bar where she knocks down plenty of whiskey and meets the guy who may be her only genuine human friend. Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), is something of a smart-talking petty grifter. He’s thoroughly unreliable, and you see it coming right off that when he takes care of Israel’s apartment while she’s on a forging trip that beloved cat will surely wind up dead.
But in Lee Israel’s life, Hock is what she gets for a friend. They drink and make sarcastic, self-serving wisecracks together. They’re neither of them fit for connecting with most of human society. It’s an obvious mistake when Israel tells Hock about her forgeries, but what the film does over and over is find the humanness of things. Israel must tell someone; she must share her life somehow.
Director Marielle Heller films Can You Ever Forgive Me? with little fuss or embellishment. The film looks straight on at Israel and her life and leaves you to your own reactions. Melissa McCarthy plays Israel with no pity or self-consciousness. You feel Israel’s loneliness and her desperation. For the most part, Israel asks nothing of anyone. Before a federal judge for sentencing, she makes no conventional apology, and her lawyer looks at her as if he knows she’s about to make things far worse for herself – as she typically does. But in that scene, with the judge looking as if the bench towers over this hapless woman, Israel confronts herself for what may be the first time ever in front of other people.
McCarthy’s performance is genuine and felt in the way of only the best acting. No histrionics, no emoting, just small movements of her head and hands and a voice that’s unembellished. It leaves you with a fundamental dilemma – a person who has done something wrong has found herself. There’s no reconciling the conflict in us – you just must accept that events and people do not neatly resolve themselves. Sometimes, you’re just stuck with opposites.