Can You Ever Forgive Me? asks us to spend an hour and forty-some minutes with two drunken misanthropes. Luckily for us, they are played by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant, two actors who have made more than a comfortable living playing caustic antisocial characters frowned upon by polite society. Like true maestros, while they are old hands at this, they find new crooks and crannies to explore with every performance.
Marielle Heller sidesteps Hollywood cliches while never once making McCarthy’s Israel likable. But Heller understands that just because your movie contains characters who aren’t good people doesn’t mean they aren’t people. She has a loving and deft hand allowing McCarthy to turn in a career-high of a performance.
Set in the early nineties the movie looks at Lee Israel. She’s a biographer who had a couple of success but has since been forgotten. Israel’s cat is sick but the vets won’t even look at her until she has paid half of an outstanding balance of eighty-two dollars.
Months behind on her rent, Lee shows up to Marjorie’s (Jane Curtin), her agent, to both of their surprises. Israel was fired from her job as a copy editor for drinking on the job. The normally introverted and shy Israel finds herself at a party with the worst kind of people: writers. She overhears one writer boast that he doesn’t believe in writer’s block and that all it takes is determination and drive.
Anyone who has ever had to write anything knows what a jackass that man is. That he turns out to be Tom Clancy is all the more hilarious, especially since Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on a true story. Most movies portray writers as witty, intelligent eccentrics possessed by the furies. The art of writing is often seen as something writers do on napkins with great flashes of genius. The script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, one an accomplished screen writer, the other an award-winning playwright, knows better. Writing is arduous and lonely work that never seems to pay enough for the amount of effort that goes into it.
Sitting in Marjorie’s office, Israel is despondent. “I have a book that’s a New York Times bestseller. That has to be worth something.” Marjorie tells her she should put biographies aside and try writing in her own voice. But as of right now, “No one wants to pay for anything written by Lee Israel.”
While at a bar Israel meets Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). They met at a party of an agent friend of theirs. “She’s not an agent anymore, she’s dead,” Jack tells Lee. “Or did she move to the suburbs? I always get the two mixed up. No, she’s alive. She’s married and has twins.” Lee shakes her head. “Better to be dead.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me? doesn’t have a plot per se. It never feels as if it’s building anywhere or anything. But that is as it should be. Rather than create artificial drama, Holofcener and Whitty instead allow us to observe the loneliness of being lonely. Israel’s foray into forging private letters from famous authors seems almost accidental. While doing research on another Fanny Brice biography, she stumbles upon a private letter stuck in an old library book. From there it just sort of snowballs.
Lee and Jack are cut from the same damaged cloth. Both would rather face the day a little drunk than sober and the two have long since forgotten even the appearance of what might be socially acceptable to say. Holofcener and Whitty revel in the intellect and words of these two vastly different people as they find for the first time, someone who comes close to understanding them.
Israel is erudite and remarkably good at masking her writing voice behind someone else. Jack isn’t what you call a reader and spends his time finding ways to get through the day. In one particular moment, Jack shows up at Lee’s door bruised and beaten. Begrudgingly she lets him in and cleans him up. She’s suspected for a while now that Jack is homeless and has her suspicions confirmed when she asks where he lives and he can’t answer.
The word “gay” is never mentioned but the sexuality of Lee and Jack is never in question. Though there is a moment when Lee name drops Fanny Brice and Jack tells her he doesn’t know the name. Lee replies, “You sure you’re a f**?” Both are unabashedly queer and the movie never pretends otherwise. The only difference between the two is that Jack can curb his anti-social behavior long enough to at least get a one night stand. Lee, on the other hand, barely musters the courage to even look the cute bookseller in the eye.
At the end of it all, after years have passed, Lee and Jack meet again. Jack walks with a cain and has a head scarf. If you know anything about gay life in the nineties the image is unmistakable. Still, though the two may have stopped talking they cannot curb their personalities. Lee shakes her head, “Well, I mean, you did f**k your way through Manhattan.” Jack laughs, “Promise to put that on my tombstone.”
McCarthy’s Israel is a stripped down version of the type of character she normally plays. But here, her loneliness threatens to consume her. She is who she is and she can’t change any of it, even if she might time from time desperately want to. Even in the end when she meets with the dying Jack she sips a soda and scotch. “I’m not here. I’m at an AA meeting down on 97th.”
Grant, for his part, is having a grand old time but is far from coasting. His Jack is a wounded and sensitive man who can’t seem to figure out how he got here. An old man now, he seems to be fighting the aging process with every fiber of his being even if he knows deep down the fight to be futile. In Lee, he finds someone who’s anger and natural talent for alcohol consumption mirrors his own.
Heller has taken a real life story and instead of embellishing it found a way to make into a character study while still commenting on how art is perceived. Forgery is a crime. But as Orson Welles asked in F for Fake, if the forgery is indistinguishable from the original, isn’t the forgery itself art as well?
Lee Israel passed off fake letters of famous literary giants, some four hundred in total, we’re told. Forgery is of course illegal. But what does it say about a culture that gleefully pillages the private artifacts of celebrities long after their dead? Heller doesn’t give us any answers but we get the sense she’s more disgusted by the collectors than she is by Israel.
Brandon Trost, the cinematographer, shoots the movie in a way where the loneliness and forlornness of its characters feel palpable. The frames seem washed out with muted colors. Heller and Trost walk a fine line to make sure we’re never overwhelmed by the feeling of despondency. The scenes are lit as to suggest brutal honesty mixed with love and pity-love for these two weary and bitter old souls.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a movie about two people who would normally either have some sort of moral comeuppance by the end or have a change of heart. Since these are real people the changes are almost miniscule. The moral comeuppance is at best, a slap on the wrist. During the credits, we are told that Lee Israel was summoned for jury duty. Her reply was simple: “I’m a convicted felon and thus I am ineligible to serve. Who says crime doesn’t pay?”