In a standout scene from Can You Ever Forgive Me, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) begrudgingly attends a book party at her agent’s magnificent apartment on Central Park West, in New York City’s Upper West Side. Having enjoyed some success as a celebrity biographer, Lee’s fallen out of vogue, and this is her last ditch attempt to pitch a book about early 20th century stage icon Fanny Brice that her agent has already turned down countless times. No one in 1991 cares about Fanny Brice — and even fewer care about Lee Israel.
One would feel bad for Lee, if she weren’t such a misanthrope, an utterly vile human being who is also one of the most entertaining and compelling characters on screen this year. After she’s dismissed once again, Lee spends the rest of the party downing free booze and eye-rolling a particularly mansplain-y Tom Clancy (Kevin Carolan), who’s pontificating about his process to a group of writers. On her way out, she steals toilet paper from a bathroom cabinet, and asks the coat check attendant for a stranger’s jacket, which she promptly dons and leaves with. Lee is the absolute worst party guest and a soon-to-be criminal, and I was rooting for her every step of the way.
Directed by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl), and co-written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty based on the real Lee Israel’s memoirs, Can You Ever Forgive Me is a cold movie. Partly, that’s down to the frigid temperatures of the New York winter, masterfully captured in Brandon Trost’s cinematography, and which gives the film anambiance of dead, empty calm — you can practically feel the frost numbing your cheeks. But the chill also mirrors the protagonist's constant, miserable loneliness. Desperate for money, and with only her cat for company, Lee’s on the verge of becoming the urban legend all New Yorkers fear: the person who dies alone in their apartment, and remains undiscovered until the smell becomes too strong to ignore.
Lee’s luck turns when she accidentally discovers a forgotten but boring Brice letter, and adds in a jazzy paragraph in an attempt to make it seem like a rare find, worthy of a collector’s interest. When she brings the letter to a dealer to sell, she’s surprised to find that her contribution has made it valuable — isn’t she lucky to have found such a witty letter! Emboldened by her success, she embarks on a crime spree of forgery, emulating work by literary greats such as Dorothy Parker (one of the fake Parker letters gives the film its name), Noel Coward and Lillian Hellman, and selling them to bookstores owners. (Many of the ones she frequents still exist today, and it’s a thrill to suddenly find oneself inside 59th Street’s Argosy Book Store.) This even leads to a flirtation with one of her marks, played by Dolly Wells.
It’s a testament to Lee’s skill as a writer that she’s able to pass off her own work as that of some of our greatest writers’, and that’s part of the film’s appeal. You can’t help but feel proud of her, even as she’s the living embodiment of Sesame Street’s Oscar the Grouch. Here’s a woman who has been chewed up and spat out by a system that values glamour and appearance over substance, and she’s beating them at their own game.
Her con gets a boost with the arrival of Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, one of those Richards — the other being Richard Jenkins — whose face you’ll always recognize but whose name remains elusive), a charming drifter she meets while enjoying a midday Scotch at Julius’, a West Village landmark, and one of the city’s oldest gay bars. (Variety points out that the trailer downplays the film’s LGBTQ backstory, a strange choice because it’s a substantial element of the plot. Lee is a lesbian, and Jack is a gay man on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic.) Beneath a veneer of sprightly wit, bon vivant Jack is as lonely as Lee is. (His reaction, when first informed of her criminal dealings is to quip: “I have no one to tell. All my friends are dead.”)
The best part of winter is the ability to revel in small pockets of warmth — a wood-burning fire , a cozy bar with frosted windows, a particularly good sweater — and Can You Ever Forgive Me lingers in moments that dispel the solitude. A scene that made me achingly homesick for Manhattan while screening the film at the Toronto Film Festival shows Jack and Lee wandering the Upper West Side, munching on a Zabar’s baguette and complaining about the legendary appetizing shop’s terrible customer service. Once they reach Lee’s apartment on 82nd Street, she heads back inside to her cat and her bug infestation, and he lights a cigarette, alone once more. It’s a moment that captures the film’s intensely New York vibe: small comforts and a lot of humor, followed by the crushing fear of being swallowed up whole. You can practically hear the opening bars of “Eleanor Rigby.”
That’s not to say that this is a epically dramatic film. McCarthy plays Lee for laughs, but her performance is by no means slapstick. The skills that earned the comedian a Best Supporting actress Oscar nomination for Bridesmaids in 2012 are front and center, but there’s an added richness to her characterization, an ever-present layer of sadness and frustration, but also complacency. Lee’s comfortable in her misery, a fact that becomes evident when Jack finally visits her apartment, and we realize that it’s a horror show of filth and smells that she’s simply grown accustomed to. Grant, for his part, is almost certain to nab a nomination of his own. (May the ghost of Lee Israel haunt the Academy forever if he doesn’t!)
Can You Ever Forgive Me feels less like a crime caper and more like an intimate snapshot of life in an era that hasn’t achieved the same level of fame as the black turtleneck beatnik 1950s, or the seedy but glamorous 1970s. The fact that the film is all the more compelling for its lack of traditional action is down to Heller’s skilfull directing, and the script, which crackles with Lee and Jack’s combined wit. We don’t see many movies like this anymore, ones that just focus on two people being themselves — for better or worse.