Directed by: Marielle Heller
Written by: Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone
Working within someone’s passion area does not always pay the bills, which is why most people hate their jobs and what they love lands in their hobbies. Finding a way to put food on the table ultimately becomes more pressing if you want to live. In this tremendous exploration of artistry vs. survival, we’re allowed a look into a disrespectful crime committed by some disagreeable people, but I bet you’ll still love them by the end. This idea only begins to highlight the greatness of Can You Ever Forgive Me?
After a recent slump in her writing, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has run into hard times financially, as she’s behind on rent and can barely feed herself. After selling a letter for a nominal fee, she learns of the income she can produce by forging letters written by historical figures. With this new source of income and help from her friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Israel has earned plenty of money, but also a copious amount of suspicion.
I love it when films introduce us into worlds and practices many folks might not be aware of. In this feature, it revolves around people who purchase and sell letters written by those who have passed several years ago. Something I would not purchase, but allows for Lee Israel to make a copious amount of money. While Can You Ever Forgive Me? focuses on these transgressions, the film has so many rich themes within the warm yet cold atmosphere created.
Israel struggles with what many authors fight off at some point in their careers, which is writer’s block. It may be from the writer themselves or the audience not responding with their recent publication. Lee happens to have the worst of both worlds. It creates this internal struggle of having to accept the reality of writing not being a career she can continue to pursue, as blatantly stated by her agent. Our protagonist sees herself as someone writing about important topics such as the biopic of Estee Lauder, as opposed to other authors who simply churn out garbage. Within the story, one of the name drops hammers home at this specific point. This idea plays into the narrative of the struggling and starving artist, which means Israel needs to get creative.
This film maintains a haze of tension around it because of the illegality of the work being done by Israel. It does not have some slick look at how she writes these letters and sells them because it takes plenty of work to get one of these letters to sound like it’s coming from the mind of these historical figures. Even if this work is not credited to her, Israel takes pride in creating these forgeries. After all, this could be considered fiction writing but of the more unsavory variety. Every meeting Israel has with a seller for these letters left me gripping my seat because of the nerves of her getting caught at some point. It matches well with the atmosphere done expertly by its wonderful director.
Marielle Heller made an incredible splash with her directorial efforts with this feature. With her debut, she made the equally-brilliant The Diary of a Teenage Girl, where she plays with what a coming of age film can look like, and Heller does the same with this biopic of Lee Israel. While I’m not connected to the literary world, it does not take much research to learn how much Israel was disliked by her contemporaries for her forgeries. She could be the villain of her own story, but this feature allows for a complex exploration of this woman, as it gets into her motivation and what brings her joy in life. To no surprise, Nicole Holofcener wrote the heck out of this screenplay, but Heller elevated it with how she shoots each scene. Nothing about the story can be seen as straightforward, as it plays with the ethics of Israel’s actions and how it conflicts with the fact her writing garnered the interest of these sellers. Visually, Heller allows New York to be its own character as each room feels like a warm reprieve from the icy cold outside temperatures. This feeling gets established with how she moves the camera and the way she directs her two main actors.
Melissa McCarthy, even with her comedy gaffes, has always demonstrated excellent acting because she’s always had it. Seeing comedians shift over to more dramatic acting causes for some misfires, but that certainly cannot be said for McCarthy. She harnesses the character of Israel and the internal struggle occurring. McCarthy nails all of the emotional moments but also plays into the moments of comedy sprinkled into the feature. This work stands as her career-best in my eyes, and she certainly got help from her wonderful supporting actor in Richard E. Grant. He’s an actor I ashamedly have only recently begun to appreciate, as he delivers a standout performance as Jack. As exuberant as he is snarky, Grant brings forth such a force of energy to counteract the mopier role McCarthy took on. Their collaboration launches fireworks in the story as they go back and forth in their very own shifty ways. Lee and Jack perhaps enable each other’s worst tendencies, but the connection they build as afternoon drinking misfits creates for such a strong friendship.
Through its narrative, direction, and acting, Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes a peek into this very niche world with its larger than life characters. It finds the balance between artistic integrity and production. The work Israel did with these letters certainly should be known as the forgeries they are, but the film alludes to what these ethics mean for the people in this particular industry and on a larger scale. It makes for a truly special feature film created in the way biopics should gravitate towards. Through its storytelling, this film feels like a warm blanket inviting you to come in from the snowy streets for a compelling story and I found myself never wanting to leave.