Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 1 hr. 46 min.

Release Date: October 19th, 2018 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Marielle Heller Actors: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Jane Curtin, Gregory Korostishevsky




n 1991, former New York Times best-seller Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) – now 51, unable to maintain her previous literary acclaim, and incredibly bitter – loses her bland office job due to drinking and cursing at her desk. Later, at a party thrown by her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), Lee again receives a cold dose of reality – no one is interested in her passion, which is writing biographies. Israel is also broke – unable to pay the vet bills for her cat, let alone the rent for her fly-infested apartment.

While attempting to drown her sorrows at a bar (at 4:00 in the afternoon), Lee runs into acquaintance Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who begins a bout of reminiscing, which ends in the realization that Lee only remembers a sordid incident in which Jack urinated in a closet, ruining thousands of dollars worth of furs. The two ride the subway home and grab some bread from a local bakery before parting ways – and arranging for an informal reunion at the same bar the following day. As Lee slowly returns to writing, focusing on a biography of Fanny Brice, she discovers a typed letter stuffed in an old library book, signed by Brice herself – which has considerable monetary value to collectors. When Lee again confronts her agent, pleading for an advance, she’s harangued about her failures to properly network, having burned bridges at every turn. “There’s nothing new or sexy about Fanny Brice!”

Right from the start, Israel is a difficult character to get behind. She may be down on her luck, but sympathy eludes her. She’s hostile, resentful, antisocial, untidy (to say the least), and, even when she discovers a rare opportunity to score some quick cash – by forging literary letters by prominent writers – she’s obviously doing something underhanded. She’s certainly not the kind of persona whom audiences will readily wish good fortunes to fall upon. On top of it all, Lee Israel was a real person, and this film is based on her autobiographical confessional.

What makes this tale of crime and consequences more cinematic (and less infuriating) is McCarthy, who doesn’t express great range (she’s still wholly recognizable), but undoubtedly handles herself well in a predominantly serious role. Her emotions appear genuine, and her plight more engaging because of it. Also of significance is her unlikely companion and sketchy partner, embodied with striking nuance by Grant – who also happens to portray a largely dislikable fellow.

But despite the excellent performances, what should be a creeping feeling of the law coming for the crooks is instead a sense of inevitable righteousness. At several points, when Israel ought to be building relationships, she reverts back to her acerbic disposition, which only makes her less of a worthy protagonist. Her increasing predicaments and psychological degeneration don’t possess the weightiness of other stories, thanks to this perpetual cycle of a miserable woman doing objectionable things. Typically, tales about wrongdoers told from their perspectives are shown with a relatability or a reasoning that viewers can comprehend (perhaps merely through an embellished twist); here, however, Israel never really becomes deserving of leniency or sympathy. The camaraderie, humor, and bittersweetness of the finale can’t overcome the strangeness of Lee’s fate, which doesn’t feel like fitting justice. Or, perhaps, it’s entirely suitable, if part of the subtle commentary of the picture is the insignificance of defrauding colorful collectors of pricey memorabilia.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10