In today’s New York, West Village is one of the city’s most expensive neighborhoods. It wasn’t always that way, as Marielle Heller’s new film, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, will remind audiences. This is the neighborhood where the Stonewall riots took place, and where Max Gordon founded the Village Vanguard, a haven for poets and jazz musicians alike. Even as late as the 1990s, a freelance writer could still live there (very) modestly. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, never better) is such a wordsmith – or, that is, she would be, if her publisher would only give her a deadline.
Having written biographies on the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Katharine Hepburn, and Estée Lauder, Israel isn’t entirely without success. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she touts. The problem with being a good biographer, as Lee sees it, is that the writer disappears behind their subject matter.
Glowering through the better part of two decades, Lee hasn’t seen a new book deal in a long time. The tell-all biography she’s penning on Fanny Brice isn’t going to pay the rent. No one’s interested in reading about vaudeville actors whose stars have long faded, especially in the case of her publisher, who won’t even take Lee’s calls anymore. (Unless, that is, she pretends to be Nora Ephron.) Lee needs money and she needs it quick, but in a world where no one seems to respect history, let alone the written word, what’s a incipiently homeless biographer to do? Turn to a life of crime, of course!
Adapted from the real Lee Israel’s memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the story of a writer's mid-career swerve into the narrow criminal niche of literary letter forgery, all for the prosaic purpose of keeping a roof over her head. Lee just might be a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker, as it turns out; she can’t write the letters fast enough to keep up with demand from collectors. Her silver-tongued drinking buddy Jack (a pitch-perfect Richard E. Grant) is just the person to peddle these forgeries. “Who says crime doesn’t pay?” the real-life Lee wrote, and Heller’s cinematic version of the biographer agrees, drinking away her ill-gotten gains as fast as she can earn them.
As Jack and Lee run amok in New York’s bookstores, their work starts catching the attention of everyone, including the FBI. However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not that interested in being the mini-heist film it initially might appear to be on paper. Heller’s camera is far more interested in documenting the physical spaces – a not-so-long-ago vision of New York that no longer exists – than in focusing on the crimes Lee and Jack commit. Through Heller's lens, all of West Village looks like a musty old bookshop, washed in rich browns and golds. It always seems to be raining, and it’s always the same shops, empty bar stools, and lonely faces staring back Lee. New York has never looked so small.
As smart as Heller’s direction is, the film undoubtedly belongs to Melissa McCarthy’s career-salvaging performance. It’s no easy task to endear an audience to a boorish writer with a caustic wit, but there’s something faintly wistful about McCarthy’s Lee. It’s a subtle performance, which does occasionally break into the physical comedy she’s known for. Watching the way McCarthy’s face crinkles into disgust when someone suggests she perform community service is worth the price of admission alone.
Despite a richly empathetic performance from the film’s lead actor, viewers may not find Isreal as endearing as the film does; if only Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script could keep up with McCarthy’s nuanced conception of the writer. The picture seems to lose its way during its later scenes, as the artist-in-decline character study fades into the background. Instead, audiences are stuck watching the same con games played over and over again, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
By the film’s end, audiences are likely to grow weary of Lee’s malfeasance. Indeed, they may begin to wonder why exactly they considered forgiving her in the first place. It’s a disappointing turn, as the film ultimately leaves most of its psychological insights unexcavated. That said, it seems likely the Can You Ever Forgive Me? will net McCarthy some well-deserved attention during the imminent awards season – including a possible second Oscar nomination.