Can You Ever Forgive Me? review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Lee Israel’s crimes were somewhat small and bereft of smarts when it came to getting away with it. Thankfully, her biopic has been given a certain humanity in her desperation as a writer. It’d be so easy to contort her tale into a silly heist, especially considering the eccentric talent assemble for such a picture. But Can You Ever Forgive Me sidesteps such easy storytelling for something more heartfelt without overdosing on the sincerity. Something tells me Isreal would hate that kinda heartwarming writing.
Mellisa McCarthy plays Lee as a female author who can’t quite get her life together in 1991. She resides in a dirty apartment with her sick cat, her evenings spent reciting old movies on television she has clearly watched multiple times. She’s lacking in funds and hasn’t sold any mesmerizing writing in ages. She hears about Tom Clancy getting a huge contract and explodes. Her agent tells her that she can’t give Lee such a deal because she won’t write anything and refuses to go on tours. She needs a hit manuscript and fast.
Or she could take the alternate route of faking long-lost letters from famous writers that she can sell for an extraordinary amount of money. And since inspiration is in low supply, Lee favors the path of forgery. She becomes rather good at it as well, making sure the writing, paper, signature, and even the typewriter are perfect. It’s not until she starts hearing about authenticity experts that she becomes worried. By the time she starts literally stealing documents, she’s shaken. And by the time the authorities are after her, she’s a mess of emotion.
McCarthy’s performance in this picture is one of her finest. She’s a collected mess of sorts as the perfect storm of a woman just desperate and brash enough to see the headlights heading towards her. She wears her heart on her sleeve, letting all the bitterness, joy and sadness flow out of her when life throws her hardship. Part of the joy mostly comes from her gay best friend Jack Hock, played by an exceptionally spry Richard E. Grant who can light any room on fire with his smile. He’s inept as Lee is at this forgery game but still gives it a go and sticks by his best friend with a constant smirk. When the heat becomes high and Jack must make sales, he’s so giddy and impressed that he ever got away with it he nearly squeals when showing off the cash. They have plenty of cute moments together and it’s brilliant to watch them bicker and chortle at the games they play.
Can You Ever Forgive Me pulls a rather surprising trick out of its hat by not only making Lee seem like an understandable criminal but a lovable one as well. McCarthy and Grant play such sincere social misfits that it’s hard to be mad at their blissful ignorance. When the two discuss their fluctuating poverty situation, Jack regales Lee with his strategy swiping toothpaste from the store without the store knowing. He caps his story with his technique being a win-win, though Lee will correct him that he doesn’t understand what he’s talking about. The same goes for Lee in how she believes she can fake her way into paying bills. But damned if there’s not a moment of brilliant chemistry between the two that makes one hope they’ll get away with a crime they had no hope of pulling off for a long time.