Review: Melissa McCarthy stuns in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

by Mia Nelson | 10/5/18 2:00am

“I have a hangover that is a real museum piece,” Lee Israel writes, imitating writer Dorothy Parker in a particularly famous forgery of Parker’s letters. Israel, a biographer who became a literary forger in the 1990s as her writing career came to a standstill, is the subject of the Telluride selected film, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” Melissa McCarthy gives incredible nuance to her role as Israel, offering both sympathy and humor to her portrayal.

The film begins with Israel visibly drunk at her day job, caustic and haughty as younger employees offer barbs her way, one even commenting that she would rather be dead than working as a copy editor at her age. Israel slugs alcohol and slews jabs at her co-workers, jokes that could have very well originated from McCarthy herself.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is quick to humor, placing McCarthy in a tiff with a pet clinic nurse, bartering with an eccentric landlord and scheming with Richard E. Grant, who plays a fragile and tragically funny Jack Hock. Indeed Hock and Israel first met when he was ostracized from the New York City literary scene after urinating in a closet at a high society party. Escapades between the two include a mild prank on a rude bookstore owner and many inebriated afternoons. The whole thing would be hilarious if it wasn’t so heartbreaking.

Hock is insinuated to be homeless. Israel’s beloved cat is sick and she cannot pay the medical bills. She is behind on rent, she doesn’t know how to receive or demonstrate affection and she is, above all, deeply alone. Her publisher rightly points out Israel’s barbed personality and openly tells her that no one will pay for her writing.

Working on an unsupported biography of comedian Fanny Brice, Israel stumbles upon two original letters from Brice. Desperate, she sells one to a bookstore, receiving payment in cash and the assurance that, for more interesting content, future letters could receive higher offers. This is how Israel becomes a forger, by adding a “P.S.” line to the end of Brice’s second letter.

As the movie progresses, we see Israel becoming more and more emboldened, relishing her forged letters and even proclaiming that she is “a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.” Her hubris, however, is impossible to see as independent from her lack of self-worth. McCarthy subtly and convincingly imbues Israel’s desperation into the good fun of forgery. She is a writer unable to put her name with her best work, as she seeks affirmation by eagerly asking the booksellers if they find her forged letters funny.

At the height of the movie, it is easy to see that Israel is a very good Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward and Louise Brooks. But as we see the FBI catch on to the forgeries, her old cat Jersey die and her friendship with Jack become terse as he skims money from her, we notice that Israel is not good at being herself. On a park bench with her former partner, we see that even when Israel had the chance to love and be loved, her instinct to detach from herself ruined her relationship.

The intense tenderness McCarthy is able to give to a character who is mostly mean, mostly uncaring and mostly lawless is what really moves me. I am particularly struck by the strained hope in her testimony before court as her crimes, at last, catch up to her. She admits to the forgeries, but also to the truth that she doesn’t regret them, saying “In many ways, this has been the best time of my life.”

This is what makes “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a film that lasts, not just the questions it raises about which of our pariahs we are willing to resurrect from the grave of public opinion, but the incessant tugging at our collective mea culpa: our shared fear of putting our name on our work. We are all too prideful, Israel’s story reminds us, we want nothing more than to be loved, but we refuse to risk losing. We are all imitators, forgers of self, and we can all feel the tender melancholy of realizing we so badly wish to be someone else.

At the end of the most famous Dorothy Parker letter, Israel apologizes as Parker for the actions precipitating her massive “museum piece” of a hangover. “I am sure,” Israel writes, “That I have said something terrible.” That letter, in the final scene of the movie, is left on display in a rare book store even when it is known to be a forgery. There is too much truth in it. We have all done or said something terrible and we are all ashamed. We all must ask, as the imagined Dorothy Parker asks in the conclusion of the letter, “Can you ever forgive me?”