When Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) could no longer make a living writing celebrity biographies, she raised some cash by selling an autographed letter. When she got less money for a Fanny Brice letter because of its 'ordinary' content, she decided to put her writing talent to work, adding a P.S. that jacked up the price. She then went full circle, creating content for a slew of her favorite authors, forging their signatures, a criminal enterprise she documented in her 2008 memoir "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
Working with an adaptation by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, director Marielle Heller ("Diary of a Teenage Girl") plunges us into the New York City of another era where one lonely misanthropist living in squalor scrabbles for survival, the illness of her beloved cat pushing her into desperation. If you gound the sight of Melissa McCarthy in an unattractive brown wig in the trailers distracting, fear not as within context the actress completely disappears into this role. That she has made such an unpleasant person not only relatable but sympathetic is a testament to her commitment and skill. If McCarthy's Lee Israel never seems as horrible as we keep hearing she is, it is because the actress has allowed us in where others are denied access.
Israel's agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) is surprised when the author arrives at her party, but doesn't want to talk about her latest project. Lee doesn't socialize, instead drinking a double scotch, swiping some shrimp and stealing a coat on her way home where she shares her purloined meal with Jersey (Towne The Cat) while enjoying a snowy broadcast of "The Little Foxes." The next day she storms Marjorie's office where she is told in no uncertain terms that no one is interested in her Fanny Brice project and that she needs to shape up, her alcoholic bitchery a hard sell. Drowning her sorrows at Julius's, she's noticed by Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant in full-on "Withnail & I" mode), a gay Brit who remembers her from a drunken party exploit. Lee, who is also gay, sees something of herself in him, even becoming moved when she realizes that despite his outward appearances, he is homeless. She eventually takes him into a trust that will backfire.
In addition to pounding back the booze, the two delight in such shenanigans as making prank phone calls, some to a mysterious 'Elaine.' We will learn Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith) is an ex-lover who left because she could never break through Lee's emotional armor. But Lee meets a new woman, bookshop owner Anna (Dolly Wells), who becomes one of her marks even as they forge a tentative relationship, the mousy and insecure Anna in awe of the published author.
All the supporting players are wonderful, Wells creating an aching portrait of a wonderful harbor for Lee's needs. When Lee pulls back, mainly because Anna cannot keep up with her alcohol consumption, the moment is truly tragic, both actresses expressing myriad emotions with no words. And when Lee, now on a 'watch list' for suspected forgery, takes a trip to Yale to steal letters from Lillian Hellman's archive, leaving Jack in charge of taking care of her cat, we just know things will not turn out well. McCarthy's heartbreak is palpable. Other dealers Lee bamboozles also make their marks, Stephen Spinella's Paul representing elite collectors, McCarthy's husband Ben Falcone the shady opposite.
Heller makes sure Israel's love of the written word comes through in various ways, not only through the words she ascribes to the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, but in the statement she delivers to her judge at her sentencing, one which initially panicks her lawyer but which concludes with none of his predicted jail time. The film features two knockout final scenes, one a reconciliation with the dying Hock, the other Lee's final jab at a know-it-all dealer. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is rich character study embedded in the tale of a remarkable con.
Robin did not see this film.
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