Movie Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
This tale of literary fraud has stand-out performances, but is as emotionally drained and off-putting as its protagonist.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of those movies where the craftsmanship is appreciable, but not engaging. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant give strong performances, every bit worthy of the Oscar nominations they received. Director Marielle Heller is skilled at using music and setting to highlight the themes and motifs of her drama. The narrative should be compelling, or at least luridly engaging. Unfortunately, the story of how author Lee Israel turned to forgery when backed into a financial and emotional corner erects several barriers between its emotional center and the audience. It isn’t until the final scenes of the film that the edifice is allowed to crack, allowing much needed heart and levity into the film.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
After several popular biographies, author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) watches as her career stalls. Her agent (Jane Curtain) dodges her, fellow writers steer clear of her abrasive personality, and she’s several months behind on rent. The barbed-wire fence of snark and booze she’s built around herself has chased away her long time girlfriend, and there’s increasingly nobody to turn to. Desperate, she begins to sell autographed memorabilia she accumulated while writing biographies of famous subjects, only to discover there is a lot of money to be found in old letters. Along with her roguish drinking buddy, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), she begins to use her literary talents to forge intimate letters from famous dead writers.
Kept at Arms Length.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? brings up many interesting ideas and viewpoints, but always at a remove. Even when it is targeting the publishing industry for hypocrisy, ageism and venality, it never really bears down. Most of the political and social commentary feels like a knife fight where there’s lots of little cuts but no killing blow. It drags in the early part of the film, and I think there may have been a miscalculation about how deeply the film’s points were landing.
I can see that Heller may have wanted to keep that insider sniping to the periphery. The drama is very much a character study. We watch a person struggle against a stacked deck and problems of her own making. As a 50 year old lesbian author of esoteric biographies, Lee is already starting out behind. Her natural inclination to hurt others before they hurt her only makes things worse. The problem is that the narrative is too effective at simulating Lee’s ability to shut people out. We get flashes of her inner life, but they are fleeting and quickly buried. The film takes too long to allow us past this wall, so I spent most of the film only academically engaged.
Oddly, our two leads give phenomenal performances despite this emotional detachment. Richard E. Grant is charming and insouciant, and despite his bohemian affectations there is a real iron core to his portrayal of Hock. Melissa McCarthy blends biting wit with the prickly sensibilities of her character for both comedic and dramatic effect. When the reserve finally starts to crack, she delivers several great speeches that sock you in the gut with their emotional heft. By the end of the piece, you can relate to both characters as both wounded individuals and tragic figures.
Sights and Sounds.
One thing that struck me about Heller’s film is the adroit use of setting and soundtrack. You get a real sense of the flavor of NYC in the mid 90’s. In particular, you get a feeling for the gay subculture of the city during the height of the AIDS epidemic, without the film having to be explicit in addressing it. The film features two homosexual protagonists without being “about” their orientation. It’s organic and integrated into their experience, from where they drink, where they socialize, and where they feel safe expressing themselves. It was a refreshingly mature and respectful representation.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a good film, but it’s not quite a great film. It is too reserved. There’s so much that could have been said, but feels bottled up. For as often as we see Lee storm and rage, there’s rarely a climax. She’s perpetually angry, and we can damn well see why, but there’s little catharsis. It feels like a little drama.
Forging obscure letters from mostly forgotten dead authors to sell to niche collectors is hardly the crime of the century. Since the brute facts of the story aren’t shocking or electric, we are left to wait for the social or emotional kettle to boil. Mostly it just bubbles, occasionally rattling the lid. Pacing issues early in the film make you wonder if it will every actually reach a head. When it finally did, it was too late to have the expected impact. Lee Israel’s tragedy was driving away those who cared. The audience winds up another casualty of that defense mechanism.