Dir: Marielle Heller; Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Jane Curtin. Cert 15, 106 mins
“Caustic wit is my religion,” New York author turned literary crook Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) proclaims early on in Marielle Heller‘s Can You Ever Forgive Me. The film is based on Israel’s memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger, published in 2008. In the book, Israel, author of biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Estée Lauder, detailed how she made money late in her career by faking correspondence from famous writers.
Playing Lee, McCarthy manages something very special: she makes a character who is odd, obnoxious, difficult and alcoholic seem lovable and even heroic. The rest of the world is at fault, not Lee. She may live in a tiny apartment infested by flies and reeking of cat piss, but she writes with an elegance and sophisticated humour that puts Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward to shame. When she forges their letters, she improves on the originals.
McCarthy doesn’t try to be ingratiating at all or to tone down Lee’s mixture of awkwardness and malevolence. At the start of the film, she tells colleagues in an office to “f*** off” and she doesn’t get any more tactful after that. In one sharply observed early scene, she looks on with undisguised contempt at bestselling thriller author Tom Clancy as he holds forth in pompous fashion about overcoming writer’s block. Her disgust intensifies when she realises the boorish, macho Clancy is drinking... sherry.
The subject matter here could easily have seemed very downbeat and depressing. This is a story about literary failure and an extreme midlife crisis. Director Marielle Heller (whose previous feature was the equally well observed The Diary of a Teenage Girl) shoots it in muted, autumnal colours. There is no sunshine in Lee’s life. She spends her days cooped up in her apartment or on her favoured bar stool. Very few people like her. Her literary agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) treats her with disdain and warns her she has no chance of getting an advance for her planned biography of vaudeville star Fanny Brice.
Yet there are glorious moments in which Lee and her accomplice and fellow pariah, Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), get their own back on a world which is ignoring them. Jack is a gay street hustler and small-time drug dealer who dresses very flamboyantly. He looks like an ageing matinee idol, but his hair is thinning and he is paranoid about the condition of his teeth. Lee admires Jack because once, when he was drunk at a party, he mistook a cupboard full of fur coats for a water closet and urinated in it. They’re not exactly friends but they buy each other drinks and plot mischief together.
Lee turns to her unlikely new life of crime primarily because she can’t afford the vet’s bills for her ailing 12-year-old cat. When she realises collectors are prepared to pay hefty amounts for private correspondence from famous authors like Parker and Coward, she starts churning out letters. The more personal and outspoken the contents, the higher the price they will fetch.
The screenplay, by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, is well structured, witty and poignant. The funniest moments tend to be the most painful or humiliating ones – and often involve the decrepit old cat.
Richard E Grant, who like McCarthy has been Oscar nominated for his role here, gives his most ebullient performance since Withnail and I as the sclerotic yet still artful dodger, Jack. And McCarthy plays Lee with an emotional complexity that you rarely find in her regular comedy vehicles. She is a completely contradictory character, a recluse who dreams of being in the literary limelight, a forger who has as much originality as the writers whose work she imitates. Lee is needy and manipulative, craving companionship and yet not allowing anyone near her. She is seemingly thick skinned but also hyper sensitive. At times, for example when imitating Nora Ephron on the phone, she can be very funny.
Another pleasure here is the way Heller portrays the booksellers, agents and authors. They are just as crooked in their own way as Lee is. The dealers don’t care whether documents are genuine – what matters is that they are “authenticated” and that is something else altogether. Lee dreams of a “better” world in which the written word is respected and writers like herself are cherished. Such a world probably never existed, and certainly doesn’t in the New York in which she is trying to stay afloat. There is courage and tenacity as well as dishonest cunning in the way she prolongs her literary career, and the filmmakers show admirable restraint, never overdoing the pathos. Director Heller doesn’t moralise about Lee’s behaviour either.
“Can you ever forgive me” is a line Lee adds to one of her forged Dorothy Parker letters describing a monumental hangover. She then used it for her memoir. Of course, forgiveness is the very last thing she is interested in. As the film makes clear, she enjoyed committing her crimes – and the fact she was able to write a book about them afterwards was an added bonus. “A writer proudest of her literary forgeries” was the headline in her New York Times obituary. If it hadn’t been for the forgeries, she wouldn’t have received the obituary in the first place.
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