Can You Ever Forgive Me?

We first meet Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) as she’s shouting obscenities at her office cubiclemates for objecting to her habit of having a full tumbler of scotch on her desk while she’s copyediting. Moments later, she’s told to pack her things. She’s a schlubby, taciturn woman whose only emotional connection seems to be to her aging cat. Her rent is overdue, and nobody wants to publish any more of the biographies of women like Katharine Hepburn and Estée Lauder she’s spent her career writing. She’s at a crossroads. What will she do, and, more importantly for viewers of Marielle Heller’s biopic, why should anyone care about what happens to her?

I’ve known people like Israel: sharp, idiosyncratic types who are often brilliant in one way or another but sabotage any possible success in their personal and professional lives by being what they perceive as honest, which in truth, more often than not, is just unnecessarily rude. They’re convinced they’re right and the world is wrong, and that they’re owed something. After a time, nobody wants to deal with them. It simply isn’t worth the aggravation. Fortunately for Israel, she finds a unique path out of her self-imposed misery.

After chancing on a Fanny Brice letter tucked into a library book and selling it for a tidy sum at a local bookstore, Israel proceeds to forge a series of similar letters by the likes of Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker. She meets an old acquaintance named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) while getting sloshed at a dive bar, and he becomes her partner in crime. A flamboyant, leering type, Hock is a perfect salesman for her fakes until he’s caught and then turns on Israel. Word gets around among rare book dealers, and Israel’s scam comes to an end, but in the meantime she’s had the time of her life.

Just as she did in her previous film, Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), Heller is able to present fully dimensional portraits of flawed people within a larger picture of a particular time and place. The AIDS epidemic of the 80s overshadows Israel and Hock’s story. Both are gay, alcoholic, and—in Hock’s case—recklessly promiscuous. But Heller presents all this matter-of-factly, as part of the story rather than its salacious subject. At no point are these two to be gawked at or pitied.

Israel is tactless and mean, but there’s a fierce intelligence and longing for connection and respect under all her bluster. She has a great time faking famous people’s letters not just because it pays her bills, but because it makes her feel wanted. Even though she’s found out, pretending to be other people brings her closer to her true self. She does the wrong thing, but it makes her right in the end.

McCarthy and Grant are both note-perfect in their portrayal of two people at the end of their rope who have no business being friends, or getting away with as much as they do, or having such a good time along the way. I can’t recall two more unlikable characters being so likable in a mainstream film in a long time.   v