The opening moments of Can You Ever Forgive Me? reveal a New York City unlike the blue–skied wonderland where writers keen on making it take to the illuminated streets in search of their big break. Instead, we experience the well–worn streets of the Upper West Side through the eyes of the real–life writer Lee Israel, the central figure of the film, who is portrayed with control and sympathy by Melissa McCarthy. After being fired from her job and told off by her agent, Lee is at a loss on seemingly every measurable scale of her life. She’s behind in her rent, her cat is ill, and despite her talent and previous success, she sees no future of her own voice making it to the page, hiding behind the figures she writes about). The gloom and doom she carries with her seems to infiltrate every space she enters, including the bar she frequents given her habit of heavy drinking. Just by chance, Lee happens upon a spirited, charismatic man, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who she’d met before, or at least remembered given an alcohol–induced, fur–destroying public urination stunt at a party. Despite their dichotomous personalities, the two bond quickly. However, as delightful as their friendship may be, it is far from the only unlikely spark that sets the film into motion.
In the process of researching for her next celebrity biography, which she is keen on bringing to fruition despite the disapproval of those around her, Lee happens upon an two old letters, which, due to their potential value as “literary artifacts” she quickly stashes away for sale to collectors. This chance discovery plants the seed for a small–scale criminal operation, where Lee, applying her abundant wit where it seems perfectly suited, begins a series of lucrative forgeries. With more cash on hand than she’s had in quite some time, Lee is able to restart her life to a certain extent. Her friendship with Jack, while not particularly helpful in controlling her heavy drinking, also takes form in a way that illuminates the second act of the film, making Lee’s forgery scheme feel like a delightful high–octane adventure. Still, the film doesn’t give us much time to forget that, sooner or later, Lee’s finest hour is going to end.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a groundbreaking film, and it may not even be an important one, but, with a tremendous performance from McCarthy, it functions as a nuanced and compelling character study. There is a pattern of self–sabotage that seems to rule Israel’s life, and this frustrating behavior is what essentially sets the film in motion. Forging letters seems to be the only thing that Israel has done in quite some time that has pushed her forward instead of back. Thematically, the film is absolutely seamless—there are no monologues or drawn out pissing matches meant to hammer home every last detail of what the film is trying to say. Instead, everything sort of melts into the dusty warm browns of the bookstore interiors or Lee’s tiny Manhattan apartment. Jack, who is a character based on a real–life friend of Israel’s, adds an infectious air of optimism and confidence that balances Lee’s caustic wit and unapproachability. When things go south for Lee and her miniature criminal enterprise, the film seems to halt in its tracks—there is no momentous trial or sequence of intense emotional weight. Life happens, Lee accepts her fate. What’s done is done, and it is all in wrapped up in calm and quiet contemplation.
With the right leading actors and a well–composed adaptation of true events, movies based in reality can speak volumes on the stories that surround us, whether they are known by few or integrated into our cultural canon. Can You Ever Forgive Me? needs no bells or whistles, no grandiose meditations on life—it is simply a good story worth telling, and is told with grace and sympathy, poised for widespread appeal.