Lee Israel is a washed up biographer, having once flown to the heights of the New York Best Sellers list only to plummet into obscurity, a flamed out Icarus of an author. Even her agent despises Lee’s pissy, ill-tempered approach to work and world, which makes selling her niche work ever the challenge. When Lee finds herself out of work, with debt piling up, and no sign of a book advance on the horizon, she turns to counterfeiting literary letters to make ends meet, making some new friends along the way.
The work from The Diary of a Teenage Girl helmer Marielle Heller takes heed of Israel’s memoir of the same name, adapted in turn by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and newcomer Jeff Whitty who labor to massage Lee’s saga into a dramatic comedy befitting a Fox Searchlight late-season release. The material has an air of conceited haughtiness, its liberal references to literary figures near constantly zipping over my head.
Heller’s film is the perfect matinee for a book club seeking cinema, and will likely be gobbled up and delighted over by voracious readers, laden as it is by abundant literary easter eggs. Lovingly adored by many a critic, Can You Ever Forgive Me is to its very core the kind of movie to be beloved by retirees and NPR donors, destined to remain inaccessible to younger generations unfamiliar with the various authors doted over and the old-timey storytelling approach.
An admittedly improved (but still only okay) Melissa McCarthy is front and center as Lee, dressed down in a pilly sweater and a mousy thatch of hair. Count it as a blessing that McCarthy is caught employing her energy for something other than poop jokes and glossy physical comedy, though the performance does not sting of anything particularly potent from a dramatic perspective, especially in the wave of such aggressive awards talks. McCarthy plays the misanthrope well but doesn’t give quite enough relatable shade to this hard-to-love individual. Her arc is nearly invisible, sauntering into the film an unlikable troll and out of it not much changed.
Even Can You Ever Forgive Me’s monochromatic aesthetics and drab set design accent Lee’s standoffishness. Her apartment – a chateau of cat shit – becomes a crash pad for new friend Jack Hock, a bright-eyed, elder gentleman and huckster played by Richard E. Grant – who confidently steals the show right out from under McCarthy. Their friendship is circumstantial and motivated equally by late nights of boozing and a dearth of long-standing friends by it’s here that Can You Ever Forgive Me finds its heart and soul.
McCarthy and Grant share bountiful chemistry but the script leans on some frustratingly stereotypical characterizations of LGBTQ characters – her an irate lesbian, him a shifty gay. They pong neatly against one another for much of the film but as Lee’s illegal counterfeiting operation scales up, Heller unconvincingly reorients the nature of their relationship and it just doesn’t quite work.
Similarly, Heller fails to competently track the extend of Lee’s crimes. As her work as a forger stacks up, accumulating across New York boroughs, so too does her notoriety. Nonetheless, there’s never a real sense of escalation, the stakes a diminutive footnote until it’s all too late. And like a house of cards, her enterprise folds in on itself, not unlike Heller’s aspirations.
CONCLUSION: An inoffensive literary-tinged distraction well-suited for older crowds and book clubs on hiatus, ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’ finds Melissa McCarthy flexing more dramatic muscles than we’re used to seeing, even if the resulting biopic warrants little more than unenthusiastic acknowledgement.