It’s been thrown around a lot that this would be the defining performance of Melissa McCarthy’s career, and I have to admit that I entirely believe this to be the case. Ironically, even as unrecognizable as she was, her performance was effortlessly natural, the perfect fit for a disgraced writer and broken human being searching for a bit of fun and, eventually, redemption. A clever, wry, sad, yet cripplingly funny film with — in my opinion — a near faultless script, I’m surprised at how compelling Marielle Heller’s latest offering was and I profess that it’s already becoming one of my favorite films of 2019.
It’s 1991. Jeri Southern is crooning I Thought Of You Last Night, but it’s far from a fairytale opening as Lee Israel makes her way through downtown New York, along the subway, and towards her lonely apartment. Lee, way past her heyday, is struggling to get work in the publishing industry with her latest pitch, a biography of Funny Girl’s Fanny Brice. Indeed, being told that it’s not new or sexy enough doesn’t seem to ring well with this 51-year-old writer-going-on-criminal. It’s a sad state of affairs as she brushes yet more dead flies off her pillowcase in a decrepit apartment. Down on her luck, her rent payments and her cat food, she one day has the brainwave to forge the postscript to a letter from a bygone author and remarkably gets away with it — thus starting a beautiful and highly illegal career. This is based on a true story, and in fact, Lee’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger seems so outlandish as to belong to the realm of forgery itself.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Director: Marielle Heller
Release Date: September 1, 2018 (Telluride Film Festival); January 20, 2019 (UK, Limited)
Fed up of the rejection that comes bundled up in her post-fame days, Lee turns to more underhand means of making a living. Her ‘business venture’ revolves around forging the postscripts of letters from famous writers, selling them to collectors for a hefty sum, and graduating onto the fabrication of full-blown letters. It starts off as a joke; then, it’s for money; and soon, it’s an obsession. Lee can’t rest until she’s completed another, tracing signatures on the glow of an upturned television set with the precision of a heart surgeon or a chemical engineer, and getting itchy fingers as soon as she sees a new typewriter winking at her in a storefront. Soon her flat is a veritable factory, lines of typewriters acting as her industrial-level conveyor belt of success, churning out her addictive forgeries with gleeful precision.
Of course, she has her doubts, but she quickly learns to quash them when it’s cash-in-hand. The real trouble comes when collectors ask seemingly innocuous questions on her procurement of the goods: her attention to detail slips one too many times, which eventually spells trouble. The real comedy and the most physically uncomfortable part of the film (I couldn’t help shifting in my seat) is when an enthusiastic collector makes an offhand remark about how some sellers just don’t appreciate authenticity in historical memorabilia. McCarthy’s poker face is marvelous: inside, she’s falling apart.
So much of this film is about the fine line between truth and forgery, about seeing how much you can get away with, and about the lies that we tell ourselves to rationalize and cope with the world around us. It really struck a chord with me because, in a way, aren’t we all just as guilty as each other for things big and small? I can’t have been the only one sat there thinking about all my tiny misadventures — but in earnest, the film had a peculiar effect of making me think about the nature of law and order, and just how far we will go to bend the rules to our own advantage.
McCarthy is brilliant and compelling as the fading writer. Realizing that she’s nothing short of a (self-proclaimed) selfish bitch to begin with, she undergoes a transformation into a friendlier (albeit no more honest) person in order to make acquaintances and go ahead with her business. One of the people she meets by happenstance is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a hopelessly endearing gay man also past his prime in life. The two meet as drinking buddies; like childhood best friends, they hang out, eat street food, make prank phone calls to agents impersonating Nora Ephron for fun. Eventually, Lee’s softer side comes out and she offers to put him up at her place, in a way forming a never-meant-to-be but equally charming life of a couple. The chemistry between these two was fantastic and was responsible for a great number of laughs in the picture.
I enjoyed the fact that both the score and non-diegetic soundtrack been very carefully thought through — it certainly pays off. Ensuring that the film stays true to a Nora Ephron comedy of the late 80s/early 90s, swinging ballads meet slow, soulful instrumentals. In reality, it’s ironic, because Lee’s life is teetering on the edge of tragedy, and yet in some ways, the upbeat musical tone is completely apt, since her situation is so absurd, laughable. Additionally, the interplay between the music and cinematography was really well executed. The moment Lee’s inciting idea is sparked, an expertly timed Pixies song comes thundering in, making one think of their unforgettable finale to Fight Club – and in many ways, it’s in the same vein, since this is a highly subversive and wickedly funny way of undercutting the system upheld by the ruling elite. All throughout the film, everyday actions are underscored by an ever-present jazz continuo, reminiscent of the minimalist score to Birdman. This device is critical to ramping up the tension at important moments — we feel as if we’re being carried on a journey through her very psyche with the instrumental undertones.
This film could so easily have been relegated to the realm of biopic, misfiring as so many before it have done, but I found it to be clever and subtle in a way that many before it have failed to do. The best part is that it doesn’t seem restricted, spectator-wise, to the literary elite. Instead, it pokes fun at these very people in the world of publishing, skewering the wealthy and vacuous parties that they attend — in fact, Jack was recently disgraced by one of these circles for getting so pissed that he urinated on thousands of dollars worth of fur coats. Priceless! The whole film, Lee’s whole endeavor, works if you take it as a playful two-fingers up at everyone involved in murderously savage publishing circles. I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who would take offense to the film: and even so, this film is for you, too — telling you not to take yourself so seriously.
Perhaps it was inevitable, but I really got on board with Lee’s lucrative side-hustle, and when warning bells start ringing and various innocent buyers start to see through the facade, boy, was I tense. When you start pushing the boundaries of what you can and can’t get away with, it’s completely predictable that consequences will follow. Oh, but it’s such a sweet endeavor while it lasts! Lee’s caustic wit and scalding sense of humor serve her well in her writing, and it’s nothing short of genius that she could go about the affair so publicly. Her sense of self-worth (for better or worse) visibly improves, and she actually begins to enjoy herself for the first time in years.
It’s a genuine shame when she’s finally discovered, though it would be entirely wrong if this wasn’t the case. It was, as I say, inevitable, but I can’t help but have been alongside her all this time — after everything she’s been through, it was a happy illusion to have kept up. I couldn’t help but wonder why Lee didn’t just get an honest job this whole time – indeed, a juror makes this inquiry of her. But as the final title card reads – who says crime doesn’t pay? The film ends on a brilliantly sardonic note, and if anything it shows that you can do something that isn’t necessarily right but have a bloody brilliant time in the process. Lee made friends, found her voice and dared to step out — immortalizing her name as a writer, and isn’t that every writer’s dream? Can You Ever Forgive Me? simply shows that there are different ways of going about the same thing. On a touching and sincere note, the film shows that life is about forgiveness and redemption, learning to trust others and being willing to accept them even after making mistakes. Yes, we’re only three weeks in, but this is fast becoming my favorite film of the year so far.