Directed by Marielle Heller | Written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, based on the book by Lee Israel | 106 min
You might never have heard of Lee Israel, and that wouldn’t be a surprise. She was a journalist, a writer of celebrity profiles when once you could make a living doing just that. She was a biographer of Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder. And in the early ’90s, when no one was buying her books, she turned to a more criminal activity to make ends meet.
Some of this you’ll know if you’ve seen the trailer for Israel’s biopic, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which has been floating around before screenings for months. It’s one of the most egregious, spoiler-filled trailers I’ve seen in ages, and I would advise anyone interested in this film to just go and avoid any advance previews altogether.
Israel (Melissa McCarthy) lives in a crappy apartment somewhere in New York’s Upper East Side, an area of town that’s gotten a lot more upmarket since the early ’90s, I’m sure. Her cat is sick, she can’t pay her rent, and her agent (Jane Curtain)—who throws parties attended by blowhards like Tom Clancy—can’t get her arrested in the New York City literary scene.
Almost accidentally, Israel discovers she has a talent for forgery, writing letters in the style of literary giants and selling them to those who broker in such things. And, just like that, her life begins to improve. More on the plot, I won’t say.
As a beloved actor who too often stars in formula comedy dreck not worthy of her talent, this is a career role for McCarthy—the Oscar nod is a lock. Her performance and a perfectly toned script profile a character who from the outside would be very hard to like, but put in her shoes we can’t help but empathize. Her loneliness is palpable, yet she keeps people away with her venomous wit, sublimated anger, and her lingering bitterness over opportunities missed and risks untaken. The film has room for a possibly redemptive arc for Israel featuring Dolly Wells as a kind bookstore owner, but don’t hold your breath.
McCarthy is perfectly complimented by Richard E. Grant, playing a Quentin Crisp-style transplanted-Brit, not so bright, but cunning and fun, despite the shadow of AIDS in his community. It’s been years since he’s had a role as meaty as this—while a higher profile actor like Ralph Fiennes gets nominated for a Golden Globe for his leading part in The Grand Budapest Hotel where he’s ostensibly playing a Richard E. Grant type—Grant has been shining in supporting parts, in Lena Dunham’s Girls, in Dom Hemingway, and in Logan. This is his most Withnail-like role since his breakout in 1987’s Withnail and I, and it’s wonderful. He even gets to say, “cin cin.”
This is a film that relishes its place and time. Marielle Heller (whose first feature was the San Francisco-set The Diary of a Teenage Girl) sees New York as wintry and grey, crammed full of bookstores and bars, but still with a beautiful twinkle here and there—she can’t resist the Manhattan shot toward the 59th Street Bridge.
And, wow, while this is entirely worthwhile, it’s a hard watch in places, especially if you’ve had any experience with the writer’s life. Israel will stick with you long after the film ends, the almost visceral stench of her apartment coming off the screen, and the fate of her poor cat.