‘CAN You Ever Forgive Me’ is a comedy-drama based on the 2008 memoir of writer Lee Israel, who was arrested for forging the letters of well-known writers like Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway and Noel Coward. The title comes from a line in a letter attributed to Dorothy Parker.
The film stars Melissa McCarthy as Lee. She’s better known as a comedian and was nominated as Oscar best supporting actress for the hit movie “Bridesmaids”. Here, she does both comic and dramatic scenes persuasively that she got nominated as Oscar best actress in 2019.
Lee started as a writer of biographies of celebrities. When her book on Estee Lauder flopped, she tries to write a biography of comedian Fanny Brice of “Funny Girl”, but no one wants to get the project. Even her own agent rejected it and tells Lee that her career went down because she’s an alcoholic and difficult to deal with.
She’s totally broke and, to earn some income, she starts selling her own possessions, including a letter she got a long time ago from actress Katharine Hepburn to an autograph dealer. She then goes to a library to do some research and finds two letters written by Fanny Brice. She steals one of them and sells it for a high price, encouraging her to start forging letters from other dead celebrities which she doctors so she can ask for higher prices.
In a bar, she meets a gay friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), and they become partners in crime, with Jack selling the letters for Lee after some buyers suspected that she’s forging them. She also resorts to stealing real letters of literary icons from library archives for Jack to sell. But the FBI apprehends Jack while making a sale and he quickly cooperates with them.
Lee is summoned in court and her lawyer advised her to show remorse by doing community service and going to Alcoholics Anonymous to show that she wants to go straight. This proves to be effective as she’s just sentenced to undergo house arrest and five year’s probation.
Usually, the female protagonist is someone viewers can easily sympathize with, but here, Melissa plays a not so likeable character. Lee can be rude, anti-social, hard to deal with, burns bridges with people she works with, loves no one else but her cat. She’s gay and she once had a partner who, eventually, was not able to stand her.
At the start of the film, she is seen drinking whisky while at the office. When her boss calls her attention, she tells her to fuck off, so she was immediately fired. Her friend Jack tells her: “I don’t think you’re a very nice person.” And she says: “I’d agree with that.”
But despite her off-putting traits, we curiously find ourselves somehow rooting for her. Her unlikely friendship with Jack is funny and their naughty banter is very amusing. Jack even tells her: “Lee, you are a horrid cunt.”
We understand that she resorts to forgery so she can pay the rent in her apartment and the bills that have piled up with her veterinarian for her ailing cat. And Lee is obviously just putting up a brave front because deep inside, she is very sad and lonely, very disappointed to what she has amounted to in life.
We honestly feel for her when she says: “I thought I was supposed to be more than this.” Melissa successfully shows off her skills in drama as Lee, who can be both unpleasant and pathetic, showing her wide range as an actress and delivering her best lead performance to date. When her pet cat dies, her grief is so palpable.
She is superbly supported by Richard E. Grant her flamboyant gay friend who is dying of AIDS and acts like he’s a New York version of Oscar Wilde. They have good chemistry and make us understand that Lee and Jack are apparently two forlorn souls drawn together, despite their conflicting personalities, by their loneliness.
They can be hilarious when they talk but when we hear them talk about their lives of solitude, it can be quite heartbreaking as they balance their characters with zest and despair. The film is directed as a sharp character study with much understanding and compassion by Marielle Heller, who’s also an actress and was memorable as the stepmom of Anya Taylor Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit”.