You can almost smell the cheap whiskey in the air and feel the cloying warmth of the dive bar where Lee Israel and Jack Hock share sordid stories and barbed banter. On paper, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a biopic based on Israel’s scandalous memoir of her infamous grift. But in execution, it’s a full-bodied intoxication, enveloping its audience in the sights and sounds of a New York experience both squalid yet enviable. Alive with fittingly “caustic wit,” this comedy-rich caper gives us the delicious thrill of feeling like a co-conspirator in a delightfully clever crime.
Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee, a best-selling biographer who by the early ’90s couldn’t get arrested in New York City…until she did. An abrasive attitude and refusal to “play the game” has booted this once toasted author to the edge of Manhattan’s literary elite. Sure, she still gets the occasional invite to a posh party, but she’ll use that as an opportunity to score a few free drinks, snatch some toilet paper rolls, and steal someone’s cozy coat for the frigid walk home. Her rent is long overdue. Her beloved cat is sick. And even attempting to sell her prized possessions is insufficient to claw her way out of debt. Pushed to the brink and furious, Lee rebels against the literary world that’s spurned her, using her writing and researching skills to pen forged letters from famous authors. With the help of some antique typewriters, aged paper, and personalized mastheads, she’s scamming shops all across the country with her wares. Lee even loops in her new friend Jack, an over-the-hill hustler (Richard E. Grant). But naturally, things go sour, because you don’t get a confessional memoir for the perfect crime.
Despite confronting issues of regret, aging, and loneliness, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a sprightly journey. McCarthy leaves behind her broad comedy to embrace a misanthrope praised for her “caustic wit,” and does so with aplomb. A scowl hangs heavy on her lips, but her eyes twinkle when Lee is landing a snarky rejoinder or prank-calling her agent with her mocking Nora Ephron impression. Make no mistake: Lee is an asshole. But with remarks like “Oh to be a white male who doesn’t know he’s full of crap,” she’s the kind you’d gladly join for a cup of coffee and some trash talk. And Jack is her perfect partner, with off-the-cuff remarks like, “Maybe she didn’t die. Maybe she just moved back to the suburbs. I always confuse those two.”
Where she is relentlessly curmudgeonly and cloaked in willfully ugly sweaters, he is dazzling despite being a coke-slinging flirt whose recklessness has long ago grown tiresome to the party scene. He and Lee hang onto the fringe of New York’s elite society by cracking fingernails. But with his boyish swagger and trouble-promising grin and her sharp-tongue and sharper wit, you can see their ghosts of glorious youth, to whom the world once seemed infinite and theirs for the taking. And this makes their bitterness all the richer and more relatable. McCarthy and Grant sink their teeth into these complicated characters, relishing both their wonders and their warts, and allowing us to do the same.
The screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty is a beautiful balance of bitterness and humanity, as well as a stellar adaptation of Israel’s memoir. The stories you think are too silly to be true happened (if Israel can be believed). But Holofcener and Whitty moved bits about to streamline the story and better bolster Lee and Jack’s thorny friendship. To see two characters so deeply flawed but fantastically funny is a gift. And that this is only director Marielle Heller’s second film (following on her acclaimed debut The Diary of a Teenage Girl) feels absurd! She blends tragedy, triumph, and humor with an awe-striking finesse, imbuing the film with a crusty charm and biting bravado that keeps even its darkest corners from feeling overwhelming or inescapable.
But the best bit is how Heller’s empathy for Israel extends to the grift. We’re shown Manhattan’s literati through her perspective, as self-righteous bores who value fame over talent. We see Lee sneered at and dismissed by her agent and even a snooty store clerk. So, when she finds a way to use their lust for celebrity against them, it feels like a bit of vigilante justice. Watching Lee come alive as she pens salacious letters and sassy post-scripts is exhilarating. Heller gives us a montage sequence common in heist movies, but instead of Danny Ocean and his schematics, you have Israel upending her TV so she can carefully trace Noel Coward’s eccentric signature onto a counterfeit correspondence. Yet it’s just as fun! And like those movies where some rich jerk gets robbed, you can’t help but root for the thief who’d make him pay.
All in all, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of the best films of the year. Its bristling humor, cynical suspicions, and tender center are boldly explored by a sensational director and a pair of stars sure to be contenders in this Oscar race. And on top of all of this, Can You Ever Forgive Me? captures the clumsiness of the human heart. Lee’s journey is not just one of fraud, but of friendship. Her budding bond with Jack pushes her out of her comfort zone, for better and worse. And amid all the shenanigans, drinks, and snark, McCarthy, Grant and Heller have delicately distilled the challenge of opening one’s self up to others, its risks and rewards. And the result is nothing short of outstanding.