Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a fact-based account of author Lee Israel’s bizarre letter-forgery hustle, is Melissa McCarthy’s Truman Show. Or Awakenings. Or Little Miss Sunshine. Or whatever other films you can think of in which a mostly comedic actor flexes their dramatic muscles and earns instant-Oscar buzz as a result. We want to watch nuanced, quality performances from actors. Obviously. But there’s just something about watching an actor do something we didn’t know they were capable of which makes it seem extra special to awards voters. THR currently has her at #6 in the list of likely Best Actress nominees this year.
Nevermind that McCarthy has already proven herself capable of darker material (Tammy) and understated drama (St. Vincent) and was actually Oscar-nominated for her over-the-top comedy work in Bridesmaids. She’s supremely talented but just happens to enjoy making rather broad comedies with her husband, too many of them, in fact. So, the box office winds have been blowing against her as of late, with The Happytime Murders and Life of the Party setting new career lows earlier this year. When that happens it’s usually time for an actor to leave the screen for a bit, maybe stretch themselves on Broadway, find a TV project to command, or simply move behind the scenes for a while. Or, and this is the more common option, they find a change-of-pace project.
That’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the first Melissa McCarthy movie I’ve ever seen where there isn’t a single moment of McCarthy exploding into a gut-busting stream of improvised expletives or an inspired bit of physical comedy. Even in her otherwise controlled turn as a beleaguered single mother in St. Vincent, she’s granted one scene to go full McCarthy and tear into an idiotic school principal. Not so here. Apart from the familiar sound of her signature laugh, there is almost nothing in Can You Ever Forgive Me? which calls to mind other performances in her filmography.
Which is perhaps what ultimately makes it so ironic that she ends up being overshadowed by a costar delivering the far louder performance: Richard E. Grant.
The plot: It’s New York in the early 90s. Lee Israel is a fiftysomething, lesbian, alcoholic, misanthropic freelance writer with unpaid bills, a sick cat, a literary agent (Jane Curtin) who won’t take her calls, and no real friends. She’s written multiple biographies, one of which ended up on the New York Times Best Sellers List, and wants her next biography to be about Fanny Brice. However, no publisher will give her an advance, and she’s too old and too bitter to change careers or find a 9-to-5.
Mostly by chance, she happens upon the odd underground world of letter collecting. Some people collect comic books, others baseball cards, or if you’re Jay Leno, cars. For the people Israel is about to scam, they collect letters written by famous others and screen personalities, especially those in which the author’s signature wit is on full display.
In a modern context, it’d be like if people were willing to pay to own their own copy of a celebrity’s particularly inspired Tweet or Instagram message. Except often times celebrities have ghost writers who do their tweeting for them. Well, that’s kind of what Israel ends up doing, just way more shady and eventually in violation of interstate commerce laws.
She uses her vast knowledge of old Hollywood and the New York theater scene to convincingly forge letters and sell them all around town to the various dealers, claiming to have inherited them from an ailing relative, sometimes an uncle, other times a cousin. The dealers then ship the letters to buyers throughout the country, netting Israel at least a couple hundred per pop. She beams with pride not just at finally having a steady income but also the enjoyment her writing is bringing to people even though they don’t know it’s actually her writing.
Along the way, she meets and befriends Jack Hock (Grant, playing him like an older version of Withnail), an unfailingly charming, gay hustler who loves liquor just as much as her and makes his money pushing fake drugs on street corners. They first bond over the shared remembrance of a party they once co-attended where a drunken Hock mistook a closet for the bathroom and urinated all over a collection of fur coats. Their gleeful laughter at the thought of the little old biddies from the party lugging those coats home and being chased by dogs on the way there is a real “This is the beginning of a fucked up friendship” moment. He’s soon recruited into becoming the new face of her hustle and uses his people skills to get her bigger paydays.
Given the low stakes nature of their, and I hesitate to use this phrase, “criminal operation,” the film is only tangentially interested in the specifics of it. Director Marielle Heller, making her sophomore effort after 2015’s impressive Diary of a Teenage Girl, deploys some of the familiar cinematic tricks of a heist or con movie, but is far more interested in zooming in on the unlikely pair at the heart of it all. We watch as Israel, so guarded and caustic in earlier scenes, gradually opens up just a little bit thanks to Hock’s influence but despair over what might happen to her sickly cat when she leaves it in Hock’s care since he’s clearly such a fuck-up.
The human cost of their operation is mostly consigned to Anna (a pitch-perfect Dolly Wells), a meek bookstore owner/aspiring author who is among the first to fall for Israel’s hustle before ultimately falling for her as a potential girlfriend. As the authorities eventually close in, Lee realizes her relationship with Anna will probably end before it ever properly began since, as per the title, some betrayals can never be forgiven.
There’s a certain inevitability to the plotting, helped in no small part by the trailers which gave basically the entire film away. However, while you’re waiting for the “And then everything changed” moment to pop up in the third act you’re endlessly entertained by the outsider pairing of Israel and Hock, the former all caustic wit and the latter flamboyance personified. The movie is at its best when they are simply supporting each other in their own messed up way. Every would-be hoarder, turns out, should have a friend willing to scoop up as much cat shit for them as Jack Hock.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A low-stakes, low-key showcase for McCarthy and Grant playing two outsider gay characters finding friendship in their fifties and skirting the law just to pay their bills.
- The real Jack Hock wasn’t British and was around fifteen years younger than Grant was when he shot the movie.
- The real reason Israel was so destitute is that her reputation had been ruined after a 1985 unauthorized biography of Estee Lauder went horribly wrong, with Lauder first offering to buy her out and then rushing out a biography of her own to corner the market. This is referenced but never explained in the film.