A downtrodden bourbon-drinking former New York Times best-selling author, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is in desperate need of turning her financial situation around. Based on the true story of author Lee Israel, this notable tale presents itself more as a quirky drama as opposed to a comedy which one may expect from a Melissa McCarthy film.
When Lee Israel is let go from her job and on her last day — she’s sitting at her office desk drinking liquor and the defunct author can no longer afford to pay rent nor take care of her sick cat. She tries to cut a deal with the vet to pay $14 for meds over $70 and can get a break. It’s almost comical how stereotypical Lee’s life is at this point as a single woman living in a dilapidated apartment in New York City who lives with a cat who is her couch companion. She’s unkempt in both appearance and in her home which reeks of cat feces and there’s also an insect problem with dead flies everywhere. She sits alone and recites lines from old black and white movies and it the epitome of what sadness and loneliness look like.
Lee Israel’s existence is pretty pathetic and it’s not surprising that she’s willing to do just about anything to change her situation. The once respected author of biographies from movie stars like Katherine Hepburn, now cannot convince even her own literary agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) that she’s of value in the industry, and she refuses to give her an advance. She vents to Marjorie about fellow author Tom Clancy getting a three million dollar book deal compared to her ten thousand.
When Israel discovers there’s another industry — one that buys and sells letters of correspondence from prolific authors — her interested is piqued.
Desperate for money and a chance to be an author again, Israel forges a series of letters from authors like Dorothy Parker to Noël Coward. She also befriends Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), recently released from prison after serving time for armed robbery and the two mingle and have drinks at their favorite local gay bar downtown. The two become peas in a pod from making prank phone calls to a Crosby bookstore owner to journalist, writer, and filmmaker Nora Ephron.
When Lee Israel is told by a local dealer about the correspondence business to which he says, “not everyone is into this because they respect talent and history”, the games begin and she starts making her own living by typing letters incessantly every night and forging documents to sustain herself. She involves her close friend Jack as well in the business when law enforcement begins to get too close.
Israel regrets nothing here and boldly boasts that she’s a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker and she truly cherishes the work she is doing.
The pacing of Can You Ever Forgive Me? has its moments of slowing down after a while and the film’s emphasis on the forgery slowly gets less interesting as the runtime moves along. There’s a subplot with Jack’s character and his love interest Kurt (Christian Navarro) that seems to only be there to later show how irresponsible and promiscuous Jack is, but doesn’t add any real texture to the plot. McCarthy’s performance is quite memorable in this film and shows that the actress has a range that extends far beyond comedy.
The chemistry is fun and engaging to watch between McCarthy and Grant and the two actors were made for these roles respectively. They each fit like a glove and they’re more entertaining together than standalone throughout the movie.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is delightful and brings us an alluring true story — far from the fiction that any author can possibly imagine.
The film is scheduled for wide release October 19, 2018.
For more of our reviews from TIFF check out the following: