Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) by Marielle Heller
Review by Reid Ramsey
“Caustic wit. That’s my religion,” sighs Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) during an early conversation in the new movie Can You Ever Forgive Me?.
This one line sums up, perhaps too simplistically, the overall attitude of the movie. Lee, the epitome of the misanthropic author, seems to love only two things in the world: cats and early 20th Century celebrities. Her disdain for others has caused her to recede further into herself and into her niche work. With this distancing, her bitterness becomes the focal point of the movie, prompting her to remark that her religion is “caustic wit,” a bitterness corroding her to nothing more than a shell of a person.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? tells the true story of how the author Lee Israel, broke and unable to find work, began to forge and sell literary letters to make money. The scheme not only pays Lee’s bills, but gives her a sense of artistic satisfaction as she perfects this new deceptive art form. What starts as a thrilling enterprise quickly devolves into darker territory as the buyers realize they have fake letters and the FBI gets involved.
Marielle Heller, the director of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, first broke onto the independent film scene in 2015 with the masterful Diary of a Teenage Girl. Diary, an adaptation of a graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner, is the intense story a teenage girl exploring her sexuality.
Finding the connection between her debut film and Can You Ever Forgive Me? seemed to be unlikely. After such a bold debut with a unique voice, her second feature film came as a surprise. The movie, a mostly gray-tinted acting showcase made to win Golden Globes is a far cry from the candy-colored, tumultuous Diary. The style of the two movies do have something in common though: both styles are influenced directly by their stars, with Heller truly disappearing behind the camera. In Diary, the film sees the world through Minnie’s eyes. It shows her body the way she sees it, it shows her family the way she sees them, and it even visualizes her art the way she does. Can You Ever Forgive Me? employs this same technique through Lee’s eyes.
A misanthrope that could give some Charlie Kaufman characters a run-for-their-money, Lee views the world through her lens of caustic wit. The writing often makes other characters out to be dumb or at least culturally ignorant. The drab coloring of the film reflects Lee’s inner life — as she corrodes, lively colors around her strip down to a base neutral beige or gray. This is not to say that the movie is lifeless. As a true character study, when Lee excels in her deception and enjoys her new art-form, the movie briefly becomes bouncier and brighter only to then be weighed back down by paranoia.
While the style is effective, it is ultimately oppressive and unsatisfying. The truly rich aspects of Lee Israel’s story, though, are in the performances. McCarthy, obviously known for her comedy, delivers an unassailable portrayal of Lee. She is funny. She is smart. She is brutal. Not entirely disappearing into the character, McCarthy uses her star power to her advantage here. Whereas her self-deprecation in other movies would be used as a punch-line, Heller lets those moments stew, allowing her self-hatred and hatred others to uncomfortably linger in the air. These moments go from funny to unsettling.
Richard E. Grant gives the other rich performance as her eccentric friend Jack Hock. The movie portrays the aging Jack as a New York queer institution, at times akin to Samantha in Sex and the City. Grant’s performance could have been an overplayed mess, yet for every bravura Acting moment, he delivers smaller moments containing multitudes.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? may not come to the most satisfying end, but as a character study, it does set out what the title suggests. Heller offers up Lee Israel, presents us her life’s work — here in the form of her short-lived, criminal escapades — and begs us to examine her. She is vitriolic and fouled by loathing, but can we forgive her? Can we remove our own biases, slip into her skin, view the world the way she did for 106 minutes, and eventually forgive her? After all, she was just trying to make a living doing the one thing she loved.