Written by Phoebe McFarb
Can You Ever Forgive Me? Is a film based on biographer Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name. It is directed by Marielle Heller, written by Nicole Holofcener & Jeff Whitty, and stars Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant
Melissa McCarthy does an incredible job portraying a witty, hard edged author who has every defense up in the world and carries around a glass of scotch like it’s an extension of her arm. As she’d see it, it’s always half empty, and slowly draining to mirror the downward trend of her life.
On the surface it’s a darkly comedic buddy heist style movie about a down-on-her-luck alcoholic writer who turns to forging personal letters from famous authors in order to make rent. But at its core, its an opus on depression, loneliness, and fear of failure that is only dealt with—but of course, not solved—through self actualization.
I was disappointed at first to find that the the film severely under-exaggerated the amount of forgeries that the real Lee Israel engaged in. Look it up if you’re curious (it’s a bit shocking!), or wait until the last couple minutes of the film. I always have an issue with movies that leave some of the most interesting and important bits to the post film text, but in this case the more I thought about it I realized; this movie wasn’t trying to tell the same story that Lee Israel told in her memoir. It wasn’t trying to be an imitation of the real thing. It was trying to express its own universal themes of the power of self doubt.
Lee says herself that she makes a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker and finds herself in the awkward position of being proud of work that isn’t—but technically is—her own. She seems to be aware of her own talent and ability, but only acknowledges it in relation to her imitation of other people’s styles. Her fear of using her own voice and opening herself up to the potential of failing and being deeply wounded is so strong that she is willing to face felony charges for forgery instead of lowering her defenses and writing something that might reveal more about herself than she is prepared to face. The fear she has is existential—it is a fear that so many artists and writers can relate to, the fear of incompetence in the eyes of our peers, and even more deeply ourselves. Lee does a fantastic job of distancing herself from everyone human in an effort to avoid the views of peers. But naturally, she can’t escape herself. Hard as she may try.
This film is a fascinating character study that underwhelms in its retelling of the source material to the benefit of getting across themes that speak much more deeply to an audience of people who might have otherwise seen Lee Israel as the villain—not only is she a con artist, but a total jerk. But the wittiness of the script, the acting chops of the two leads, and the direction this film decided to take allow her to be a protagonist we side with and relate to instead.