'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' a Feat of Tragicomedy

Can You Ever Forgive Me?
(USA, 106 min.)
Dir. Marielle Heller, Writ. Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Lee Israel is pathetic. When we meet the writer circa 1991, she’s a 51-year-old has been, clinging to her fifteen minutes of fame while churning out entry level work during the graveyard shift. Israel achieved some measure of repute thanks to her literary biographies on Tallulah Bankhead, Estée Lauder, and reporter/game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen, the latter of which was a New York Times bestseller. Israel thinks this modest success entitles her to more out of life, but as a bitterly depressed and resentful alcoholic, she squanders her talent far more than she uses it.

This palpable pathetic-ness to the over-the-hill cat lady makes Melissa McCarthy’s portrait of Israel so wonderful in Can You Ever Forgive Me?. McCarthy taps into the sad tragedy of Israel’s shortcomings and brings to life the sad irony that allowed the author to create what one could call her finest work. Can You Ever Forgive Me? recounts the notorious episode of Israel’s career in which the writer forged and embellished the letters of dead celebrities—some 400 letters—and later wrote about her crimes in the memoir that shares this film’s name. The joke of Israel’s crime is that she could only make a living as a writer by breaking the law. She did a fine job of it, too, disappearing so perfectly within the voices of her subjects that she fooled many experts.

This adaptation by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), and directed by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) after Holofcener fell out, is a cleverly incisive character study. The film enters Israel’s life at a terrifying point in her life—that moment where she realizes she’s unlikely to make a full time career out of her talent and passion, but is too old to pick up something new. Her agent (an enjoyably brittle Jane Curtain) tells her that nobody wants to pay for biographies of also-ran celebrities by a writer with no identifiable voice. However, Israel knows that her ability to disappear within her familiar literary creations is her strength as a writer. Months behind on her rent, frantic to get her ailing cat (and only friend) to the vet, and thirsty to increase her bar tab, Israel decides to put her skills in writing, research, and celebrity arcana to good use.

The film smartly shows audiences how easily one can fall into a trap of deviant behaviour when the stakes are high and the temptations are near. Israel begins her work honestly, simply selling some rare letters that she finds while researching Fanny Brice for said biography that nobody wants. The transactions inform her how much people are actually willing to pay for celebrity non-fiction, albeit in short epistolary form. She’s doing the work anyway, so she uses her chameleon-like voice to add value to the letters. It begins with a saucy post-script that turns a $50 letter into a $200 payday, and it morphs into full-blown feats of historical fiction as she concocts pricelessly fraudulent exchanges from the hands of personalities like Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker.

Israel finds a partner in crime in fellow barfly Jack Hock, played by a stupendously sleazy Richard E. Grant. The British actor is perfectly cast as the suave, skeezy grifter who is the antithesis of Israel’s miserable self-pity. Hock is a flamboyant fast talker while Israel is a drab introvert, but their yin-and-yang relationship fills the voids they aim to feed.McCarthy and Grant are one of the year's best screen teams.

Hock, like Israel, is a person of unmarketable talents trying to survive in a fast-paced and over-priced city. They become drinking buddies, but strictly platonic ones since both grifters are outsiders in New York’s queer community. Their relationship is the highlight of the film, since McCarthy and Grant have such electric chemistry. They anticipate one another’s comedic sparks and beats, hitting lines and actions for dramatic effect with the same energy that makes for great slapstick humour. Even richer, however, is the surrogate family they create as trust develops between them. Israel keeps people at a distance—she says little of her family and has an ongoing fixation for calling her ex-girlfriend in the middle of the night—and the film gives the character a welcome security blanket in this man who shares her feelings of isolation and invisibility, which only make the twists of the film all the more devastating both for Israel and for the audience. At the same time, it makes her awkward courtship of bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells), whom she initially meets while selling a forgery, doubly tragic because it highlights her self-destructive nature as she pushes away the one person trying to draw her close.

Israel is McCarthy’s first true dramatic role and while it certainly took major dramatic chops to convince the world she pooped in a sink in Bridesmaids, Can You Forgive Me? is also the best example of her comedic skills put to perfect use. This work is the finest performance of McCarthy’s career so far. McCarthy’s performance is a richly balanced feat of tragicomedy that attacks the part with the full force of her comedic timing and giant personality. She doesn’t judge her character, but the sad desperation in her work brings Israel dynamically to life. McCarthy ensures that one always knows why Israel acts as she does, and there’s a light-hearted sense of humour to the way she carries the character that creates an absence of malice. Israel isn’t a bad person: she just did a bad thing. This is how it’s done, Steve Carell!

Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in Toronto on Oct. 26.