Conversational movie titles have routinely provided straight-to-the-point assertions of a film’s thesis, but the question presented in Marielle Heller’s adaptation of Lee Israel’s memoir has a simple answer: no, I cannot ever forgive you. Heller’s film paints the appropriate picture of a person unworthy of sympathy, let alone forgiveness. Holding nothing back, Can you ever forgive me? is a stirring, truthful look at someone famous for forgery and making enemies, all with an underlying theme of the sanctity of art and the nature of authorship.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? tells the story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), an isolated former New York Times Bestselling writer who has fallen out of favor with the tastes of contemporary literature. Her biographies on Vaudeville comediennes are no longer sought after by the early 90’s Greenwich Village writing scene, and Israel’s bridge-burning attitude is not helping matters either. To make rent, she turns to impersonating famous authors, embellishing their personal letters to family and friends, and selling them to unassuming book stores for a healthy sum. The practice will eventually catch up with her, but in the meantime the writer will use the opportunity to reach out of her own self-exile and possibly form a meaningful relationship.
An unbiased examination of a complicated individual, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a pure investigation of Lee Israel in the sense that the character captures your interest, but you never actually root for her to get right with the world. Israel’s many imperfections are highlighted in every scene, displaying flaws so deep and plentiful that they build up to a character broken beyond repair. While she is not so despicable that watching her interact with others becomes arduous, you never get the sense that the character has ever had a positive impression on anybody who wasn’t an actor in the pre-television era of performing. And the story never breaks rank and asks you to give the writer your compassion. There are scenes of depression and remorse, but those personal stakes never stretch beyond a feeling of self preservation, the very feeling that compels her to indulge in spicing up literary letters instead of looking within herself to create something personal and real. Typically, storytellers, no matter how talented, tend to tip their hand and show some form of partiality to their subject, but the narrative never leans too hard on one side or the other, all the while presenting an unbiased perspective on the protagonist.
Marielle Heller outfits her film with an excellent cast with each and every actor delivering great performances that honestly add to the experience. But as brilliant as the cast is, Melissa McCarthy manages to stand out in the very challenging role of depicting the unsympathetic Israel. Shedding the overarching comedic traits of her type cast, McCarthy pulls together a performance that is about as profane as you would expect from her, but with a heightened depravity and a sharper edge to make things more humane. The actress’s acidic disposition with people, matched with a sensitive handling of her more solitary moments, is the primary reason Israel is as interesting as she is. If you read my review for Life of the Party back in May, you’d have seen an indictment on a performer I admired but felt had hit a low point in her career. But after The Happytime Murders reinvigorated my belief in McCarthy’s comedic abilities, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? showcased a rare display of dramatic fire power, I feel confident in my assessment that 2018 turned out to be an incredibly meaningful year for McCarthy, and it has probably nabbed her a second Academy Award nomination.
The biopic may primarily take place in a wreck of an apartment, a book store, and a bar, but it is resoundingly gorgeous despite its mundane settings. With credit to Brandon Trost’s cinematography, there is no shortage of elegance and incandescence to the early 90’s New York setting. Filmed in stunning natural lighting, the work is beautifully rendered, with every falling snowflake and cold exhale presented in their natural, unaltered beauty. Nate Heller’s adaptable score is a welcome backdrop for the story, and getting to watch Richard E. Grant (who is a captivating scene-stealer as Isarael’s close friend and accomplice, the garish Jack Hock) nurse a cigarette on a cold New York sidewalk is just the well-lit cherry on top.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? might look like Oscar bait for star Melissa McCarthy, but the story, though straightforward, is comprised of layers that make the experience well-rounded and worthwhile. As well as it presents a clear view of an indecent but engaging lead, it also has a lot to say about ownership of a creative property. Lee Israel will probably best be remembered for forgery and making money off telling the story, but it was her work that enhanced and celebrated the very artists she was ripping off. True artists create, but it is those who admire them that push their work over the top to immortality while keeping their memory and reputation in tact and alive.