Based on real events in the life of literary forger Leonore Carol “Lee” Israel, Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? begins in the early 1990s, with the once-successful biography author (Melissa McCarthy) in dire financial straits, unable to keep up with changing industry trends. She’s baffled that she can’t secure hefty advances, and insistent on writing about obscure subjects that no longer draw the public’s attention. Her mindset is as stubborn as her lifestyle is rotted: She drinks all day at a local pub before returning to an apartment cluttered with books and fetid with the smell of kitty litter.
While researching her latest celebrity biography, a sure-to-be worst-seller on Fanny Brice, Lee opens a library book to find some letters addressed to the original owner from the vaudeville legend herself. Desperate for cash to pay her rent and her cat’s veterinarian bills, Lee takes the letters and subsequently pawns one of them, but given its banal content, she gets little money for the correspondence. Later, as Lee struggles with writer’s block, she casually slides another letter into her typewriter and dashes off a pithy postscript in Brice’s signature voice to amuse herself, then gets the idea to try and sell the letter. This altered version of the original fetches a higher price, and soon Lee is forging other missives by noteworthy writers, particularly those known for their sharp wit, and raking in money for her deceptions.
The film portrays Lee’s felonious activities as something of a logical extension of her literary style. An early exchange between Lee and her apathetic agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), makes mention of Lee’s talent for disappearing into her subjects’ voices, and that skill obviously feeds into her forgeries. She contrives to give an accurate sense of the drollery of such comic wits as Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker, even as she offers up details that neither writer would have put to paper, such as making direct reference to Coward’s sexuality. Lee buys older typewriters to more accurately reflect period fonts and artificially ages her stationary, but she’s hardly a mastermind, as she otherwise churns out the juiciest of letters with no regard for the suspicions they may raise. From the start, the film is driven by the near-absurdity of how Lee could have suckered so many people with her wrongdoing—and for so long.
To pad out the film, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script wisely detours at length into the reluctant friendship between Lee and Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a dandy whose casual confidence and Wildean charm can scarcely disguise his own hard luck. Clearly homeless and surviving only on his charisma, Jack immediately gives the impression of being a socialite with the misfortune of outliving his own relevance, leaving him ostracized by the very scandalous behavior that once earned him entry into an inner circle of literati. Ambling around the gay community in which he and Lee reside, Jack is a Fagin without a cadre of orphans, and he seems like he channels every available bit of energy toward maintaining what little of his self-regard he has left.
Grant is captivating on his own, but his rapport with McCarthy is so effortless that their characters’ conversations offer deeper pleasures than the main plot of Can You Ever Forgive Me? McCarthy dials back the outrageousness that typifies her recent performances, conveying Lee’s sense of defeat with a casually tossed-off acidity that grounds the character. Lee may be able to mimic the deft repartee of classic wits on paper, but in conversation she has the blunt-force humor of someone looking to offend more than entertain. She’s the straight woman to the puckish Jack, a fixed point around which he bobs and prods with pugilistic dexterity. For all his teasing, Jack clearly sees Lee as a kindred spirit, and the flashes of tenderness that creep out from the edges of his playful expressions are the film’s emotional high points.
Less convincing is the film’s attempt to soften Lee’s standoffish personality with sentimental strokes. A romantic subplot involving a timid but interested bookseller, Anna (Dolly Wells), evinces Lee’s fear of the mildest commitment, but that revelation isn’t elaborated upon, and so we aren’t drawn further into the author’s psyche. The film never convincingly supports its argument that Lee’s forgeries represent a kind of self-actualization, but there’s something appealing in just how unrepentant she is about her criminality, expressing unabashed pride in her craft. Her defiance stops Can You Ever Forgive Me? from sliding fully into sentimentality, which helps the film retain that devilish vibe that makes Lee and Jack’s relationship so rewarding.