I should admit upfront that I was hesitant to give this movie a fair chance. I missed Can You Ever Forgive Me? in its initial run because I was unsure that it was anything more than Oscar Bait. An Oscar Season actor’s showcase for a once-goofy-now-serious comedian in a tonally muted biopic will never be the kind of thing I rush out to see. The talent on-hand in this particular case was too substantial to fully ignore, however, as the comedian in question is the consistently compelling Melissa McCarthy and the director behind her Marielle Heller, whose previous feature The Diary of a Teenage Girl might just be one of the best dramas of the decade. I don’t believe my initial misgivings about Can You Ever Forgive Me? were entirely inaccurate. The film’s subdued real-life subject, its predilection for montage & voiceover narration, and its relentless mood-setting jazzy score all feel like they belong to the exact kind of well-behaved, awards-seeking picture that I actively avoid. I also only got a second chance to see it in a proper theater because of those awards; after being nominated for two acting-category Oscars (and a third for Best Screenplay) it returned for a second theatrical run in New Orleans to profit off the buzz. Make no mistake: Can You Ever Forgive Me? carries the exact look, feel, and prestige you’d expect from an Oscar Season biopic featuring a comic performer acting against type. What’s wonderful, then, is how Heller & McCarthy (along with fellow subversives Richard E. Grant & Nicole Holofcener) use that structure to deliver something much more tonally & thematically challenging than it initially appears.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is dressed up like a prestige biopic, but only in the way that a mean drunk can temporarily disguise themselves as a functional, friendly human being in short social bursts before their true colors start to show. McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a once-successful literary biographer who turns to a life of petty crime once she finds herself near-homeless, unable to successfully pitch any new projects to her publisher. Her particular talent of getting into the heads (and voices) of her literary biography subjects comes in handy when she begins to forge personal letters in their name to sell to collectors – faking correspondence with important historical artists like Dorothy Parker, Fanny Brice, and Noel Coward for minor sums of cash. The payoffs are relatively small for a grift that lands her under investigation by the FBI, but Israel seemingly has no other means to survive, as she lives precariously without a social safety net. In a lesser film, that sense of isolation & financial doom would be blamed on some social ill or systemic pitfall that failed her. Here, it’s because Lee Israel is an asshole. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is most impressive as a balancing act of admiring & sympathizing with a character while not letting them off the hook for being a drunk & an obstinate dick. Lee Israel and her only partner in crime (a fellow poverty-line drunkard played by Richard E. Grant) live by a strict “Fuck ‘em” policy when dealing with the rest of the world, an attitude that isolates them in ways that are both dangerous to their well-being & difficult for wide-audience sensibilities. It also makes for a much more relatable, satisfying picture than what was sold in its earliest ads.
The secret success of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is that it passes itself off as a well-behaved biopic, but it’s not a biopic at all. While the film does follow a somewhat notable historical figure around a long-gone 1990s NYC, it’s less a biography of Israel’s life than it is a dual character study of two very particular, very difficult people. Crude, drunk, queer, mean, proudly unemployable, and living in squalor, Israel and her sole co-conspirator have a hostile relationship with their fellow New Yorkers (and the universe at large). McCarthy plays Israel with aggressive skepticism & a permanent scowl, deathly afraid of showing a single glimpse of emotional vulnerability or sincerity. For his part, Grant goes full Quentin Crisp as her cohort, ruthlessly squeezing every cheap hedonistic thrill out of life as he can, treating his limited time on Earth as a frivolous lark. Even if you don’t see you own personal flaws & hurt reflected in these characters, it’s easy to recognize them as kindred spirits; the shithole world we live in doesn’t deserve any more sympathy or respect than they’re already giving it. Marielle Heller’s greatest achievement in this film is in inhabiting Israel’s voice & POV, the same way the infamous forger inhabited the voices of the literary figures whose graves she robbed. No matter how prickly or destructive Israel can be in the film, we never lose sight of the fact that the world let her down first, that life is a bum deal that doesn’t deserve a single ounce of effort whether or not she’s willing to give it. Whether she’s furiously railing against the fragile egos & unearned confidence of straight white men or enjoying a brief glimmer of peace in an upscale drag bar, we feel her anger, her pain, and her displacement in a world that does not want her. You cannot fake that kind of authenticity in spiritual kinship, even if Heller, McCarthy, and Holofcener are speaking for Israel, even if the vessel that contains her forged voice carries the inauthenticity of an Awards Season melodrama.