A low-key but vibrant film about quiet desperation and survival, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? is never less than absorbing.
The chief protagonist, New York-based author Lee Israel, finds herself in dire straits in the early 1990s. Israel’s last book about cosmetics mogul Estee Lauder has bombed and, cruelly enough, publishers are shunning her. Unable to earn a living, she must scramble to survive. Not too long ago, she was in demand, having written well-received biographies about journalist and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen and stage and screen actress Tallulah Bankhead.
Heller’s movie opens as Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is in free fall. A short, squat, unattractive, badly-dressed woman with a brusque manner and a drinking problem, she attends a reception hosted by her agent. As she leaves, she wraps shrimp in a napkin, steals a roll of toilet paper from the bathroom, and takes someone else’s jacket from the coat check.
Having fallen on hard times, she can’t afford to pay for her cat’s treatment at a veterinary clinic, and she’s reduced to selling her old books for a pittance. More tellingly, she’s behind on her rent.
At this low point, an old acquaintance, Jack Hock (Richard Grant), turns up. He’s a happy-go-lucky n’er-do-well with no fixed address. Until now, his good looks, blue eyes and ingratiating bohemian manner have tided him over. Much to Hock’s embarrassment, Israel remembers him as the drunken party guest who mistook a closet full of expensive fur coats for a toilet and damaged them beyond repair.
In a bid to reboot a career that lies in ruins, Israel embarks on a quest to write a biography of the late entertainer Fanny Brice. Poring over Brice’s letters in a library, Israel surreptitiously stuffs one of them into her handbag. Later, she proceeds to sell it to a dealer.
The situation goes from bad to worse when Israel learns that Marjorie (Jane Curtin), her agent, cannot procure a $10,000 advance for her latest project. Marjorie complains that Israel has “destroyed all the bridges” she has built for her and can’t “play the game” that authors must engage in to be reasonably successful.
Being an intelligent woman, Israel recognizes the truth of Majorie’s assertion. At 51, she still likes cats better than people. Taciturn, dour and abrasively direct, she’s a gay woman and something of a loner whose conversational talents leave much to be desired. When she’s pursued by Anna (Dolly Wells), a kind and empathetic book store owner, Israel gives her the cold shoulder. McCarthy portrays Israel with precision and panache. Grant delivers a lively performance as her ragged associate in crime.
After Marjorie advises her to change her profession, Israel has a bright idea. She’ll embellish the private letters of famous people like Brice, Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker and sell them to unsuspecting dealers for a handsome profit. Letting Hock in on her secret, she describes her forgeries as “literary collectibles.” They’re sufficiently impressive that dealers are only too glad to purchase them. The ethically challenged among them are faintly aware of her underhanded methods, but are only interested in the bottom line.
Israel’s talent for “embellishing documents” serves her well, at least until complaints begin flooding in. She’s placed on a dealers’ list of disreputable characters, and is soon visited by two intimidating FBI agents. With one of her clients having demanded his money back, she enlists Hock to sell still more fake letters. Israel is on a downward trajectory after these consecutive setbacks. By the time she’s polished off her last ersatz letter, she’s produced no less than 400 exquisite forgeries.
Based on Israel’s candid memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is mercifully non-judgmental. Heller has no interest in demonizing a depressed but resourceful woman down on her luck. She leaves it to viewers to make their own determinations about Israel’s morality, or lack thereof.