By Kyle Roe
In a fittingly bizarre twist of fate, one of 2018’s best crime dramas is a true story of high-stakes literary forgery starring Melissa McCarthy. It’s almost as unreal as main character Lee Israel’s $400-a-month rent for a studio in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which nevertheless, along with the veterinary bills for her cat Jersey, need paying.
Based on Israel’s memoirs of the same name, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” begins at the closing chapter of her career as a biographer, which ended with a thud following a critically and commercially catastrophic book on Esteé Lauder (sabotaged by Lauder herself, after allegedly bribing Israel to present a cleaner image of the cosmetics icon). Unable to move her work out of the 75 percent off section or sell a new idea to her publisher, she re-directed her literary ingenuity to forging letters by famous authors and hawking them to eager collectors.
McCarthy does an excellent job portraying the hard-drinking, fiercely independent Israel, whose instinctive mistrust forces her to skit around most opportunities for personal connection. In one telling scene, she makes one notable exception for Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an old acquaintance and former actor turned coke dealer. His wit and contagious charm keep him afloat, earning him a lot of like-minded friends and enemies in the process. They frequent the same bars, probably for years before their most recent connection, nursing the perennial losing streak that bonds them together with a bottomless glass of whiskey. Hock may have also served as Israel’s criminal muse, a glimpse into the possibilities and side-effects that arise when talent sidesteps rules.
Israel and Hock, like the actors performing them when they first started filming, hit it off almost immediately. They’re inseparable throughout the course of the movie, finding joy in each other’s hijinks, from playing cruel practical jokes on an obnoxious bookseller to attending a literary letters auction to find reliably immoral dealers.
Even without a shady set of scruples, collectors were enthralled with Israel’s letters from the start. Not only for the volume of rare correspondences she “manages to dig up,” but for the sheer quality of Israel’s writing. Her mimicry brings the phony letters to life, as she tries to resurrect subtleties in her subjects’ various writing styles and off-page personas.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a scrappy anti-success story with a heart of gold, or something that resembles gold, and might even be better than real gold. McCarthy and Grant’s performances are stellar, bad-temperedly vivacious, and chock full of wit. Definitely highlights in one of the most original and stimulating movies of the year.