Toronto first look: Can You Ever Forgive Me? builds sympathy for a literary forger

Melissa McCarthy dials down her portrait of convicted celebrity-letter counterfeiter Lee Israel in Marielle Heller’s empathetic, shabby-chic New York expression of contorted creativity.

Abbey Bender

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Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

“I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” says Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) midway through Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Marielle Heller’s witty take on Israel’s memoir of the same name. A frustrated writer with her accomplishments of celebrity biography behind her, Israel, hard up for money, began forging letters from famous writers and actors in the early 1990s and selling them to rare books dealers for a pretty penny, until she inevitably got caught.

Watching the film, it’s amazing to think that she wasn’t found out sooner (she had forged over 400 letters before the FBI intervened), and one might wish for a slightly more detailed look at the dealers’ authentication processes. Heller does do a fine job of showing the physicality of Israel’s morally dubious work: she has a fleet of typewriters and walls papered with research materials. In one particularly inspired moment, she uses the light of a television set’s static to help her trace over Noël Coward’s signature.

The atmosphere of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is pleasantly cozy, despite Israel’s prickly behaviour. Shot on location in Manhattan, much of the action unfolds in gay bars, used bookstores and dingy apartments, and it’s frequently raining or snowing. The color palette is subdued, and the thematically appropriate aesthetic of a faded postcard persists. There’s the distinct patina of this being a ‘New York movie’ and an early scene of a party at Israel’s agent’s home is a sharp depiction of some of the pretensions of the New York literary world (try not to cringe as a writer grandiosely claims not to believe in the concept of writer’s block).

Israel was obviously a complicated woman, but the film has a tendency to present her as a series of clichés: she’s a writer in crisis, so inevitably she drinks too much, scowls, and trusts her cat more than any person. While these clichés may have come from truth, and it’s good to see McCarthy shift from her typically broadly comic roles, her performance sometimes feels like it relies too heavily on the crutch of self-sabotage.

Israel’s friend Jack Hock, winningly played by Richard E. Grant, ends up being more fun to watch. Grant is a charismatic performer with delightfully tart delivery. Hock, with his bolo tie and elegantly held cigarette, has a sparkle that Israel is missing. Even so, their banter turns a bit musty after a while.

Overall, even with its nostalgic overtones, Can You Ever Forgive Me? has some pleasantly progressive aspects. McCarthy is thoroughly deglamorised in her role, and none of Israel’s actions are ever cruelly judged. Heller understands that this is the story of a woman marginalised for her age, sexuality and self-presentation trying to get by, and the queer protagonists aren’t made into the butt of a joke. In a way we want Israel’s scam to succeed – her letters are like little novellas filled with bons mots – and this perverse wish is pointedly reinforced by the film’s satisfying final moments.

 

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