Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
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I might not have been very invested in the film's story, but McCarthy and Grant (who should definitely be in the running for a Best Supporting Actor nomination next year) certainly make CAN YOU EVERY FORGIVE ME? worth watching.
Melissa McCarthy reaches an artistic career peak with her performance as the late writer who had been one of the top names in her field in the 70s and early 80s before cultural evolution (or devolution, depending on how you look at it) combined with her own abrasiveness and alcoholism led publishers to shun her work. McCarthy adapts her familiar techniques perfectly to this particular character.
With bills mounting, and facing loss of prestige and income, she began drinking heavily and sinking into a deep, almost psychotic, depression when, half by chance, she discovered that a lot of money could be made by selling letters from famous people like Katharine Hepburn and Fanny Brice. The juicier the content, the more cash they commanded. A talented and witty writer herself, she was familiar enough with the style of the such figures as Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker to forge imitations that convinced professional collectors of their authenticity. Quotes from some of her fakes even ended up in respectable publications. Eventually she resorted to doctoring correspondence which she stole from libraries and selling the results for high prices to sometimes shady dealers. Here was someone who loved and respected outstanding writers and their works but was driven by circumstance to, in effect, falsifying their legacies.
Some of the little touches that deepen our understanding of her character include a scene where she is watching the 1941 film version of "The Little Foxes" and starts delivering the dialogue along with the actors and even accurately imitating Bette Davis's distinctive giggle. Much of the time she is swilling scotch and her ever-so-slightly slurred speech reflects this half-inebriated state.
The movie is shot in New York, making use of locations that still look much as they did more than a quarter of a century ago, when the classic New York of the early-to-mid 20th century, an environment conducive to Israel's own earlier success, had mostly faded out. Julius, the bar where a few key scenes are set, existed then and still exists now. (A conversation therein about her illegal shenanigans is softly underscored by Marlene Dietrich's recording of "Illusions," Dietrich being the subject of one of Israel's Noel Coward forgeries.)
Most of the interiors (book stores, archives, Israel's funky apartment, her agent's more elegant and expansive one) are genuine.
McCarthy is strongly supported by Richard E. Grant in a showy, colorful performance as a fellow alcoholic and partner in crime, Stephen Spinella as a kind but increasingly suspicious rare book dealer, Brandon Scott Jones as a fussy book store clerk who, to his regret, rubs Israel the wrong way, Jane Curtin as her no-nonsense literary agent, Anna Deveare Smith as an old friend and numerous others.
"Can You Ever Forgive Me?", based on and named after Israel's slender autobiographical recap of this period, is a highly intelligent and detailed rendering of a complex human being, by turns endearing and repulsive, brilliant and stupid.
The film is about the real life story of down out of luck biographical author, Lee Israel. Her books aren't doing well and she finds it hard to find inspiration. She can't afford rent or veterinarian care for her sick cat. She decides to forge letters signed and typed up by famous entertainment personalities. At first she finds the scam to be lucrative but eventually the buyers become suspicious and the FBI get involved. The film basically tells the tale of her forgery, until she gets caught, and the aftermath.
McCarthy does a good job here. She doesn't completely disappear into the role but its a believable performance that showcases her best qualities. The film is proficient in mixing comedy with humor and brings forth a rather intriguing plot in a way that keeps you engaged. I already liked Marielle Heller as The Diary of a Teenage Girl was a really interesting and well made film as it was. I think she finds a penchant for storytelling that mixes humor and drama well.
Its easy to see why something like this would have been easy to get away with in an earlier time. Its an idea people wouldn't easily think of. Crime doesn't pay, after a while anyways. If you want to see a solid biopic and an even more solid Melissa McCarthy performance then this is your film. its not anything amazing but its a generally interesting tale about a shady author that you may not have known about.
This fact-based story of biography author Lee Israel's fall into a life of forgery is a fascinating one. Marielle Heller's movie (based largely on Israel's own account) takes a subdued approach. Set in the early 90s, the movie is an almost bucolic version of New York City with warm digital photography by Brandon Trost, and, largely, a retro soundtrack full of Cole Porter, Peggy Lee and Dinah Washington tunes. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty's script similarly tries to warm up the often prickly Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy).
Despite some success in the past with Biographies of Dorthy Kilgallen and others, Israel's career is in a downward spiral after her flop book on Estee Lauder (the makeup tycoon rushed her own tome out to crush Israel's). Further, Israel's personality is so caustic that she literally has become the crotchety old cat lady - unemployable and unlovable. Fate intervenes when, while researching a future book, Israel stumbles upon authentic letters by well know writers and personalities. She steals them and sells them to collector's. On the personal front, she meets up with a gay habitue of the scene, Jack (Richard E. Grant). Together, they strike up an odd relationship based as much on mutual misery (and drinking) as any real affection. Once Israel discovers that she can pay her bills by selling purloined letters, she sets up an even larger scheme - outright forgery (the amount of outright thievery of legit letters is downplayed).
The screenplay lays things out in a neat and orderly manner, even if none of it really gains any momentum. Heller's direction is fine, if unfussy, but makes some curious choices later in the movie with jarring music choices, including a tune by the hard-rocking The Pixies. Great band, but, those more modern sounds seem to come from nowhere stylistically wise (everything else in the movie remains as subdued as before).
What keeps the movie flowing are the performances. McCarthy has been justly lauded for her sympathetic acting, if a bit too much (some have fallen into the trap of over-praising a "comedian playing straight"; haven't these folks seen here fine work in ST.VINCENT just a couple of years back?). While you can sometimes see the seams in McCarthy's performance, Grant glides with ease. While both individuals are clearly gay, only Grant's Jack gets to be overtly so. I guess it's more 'enjoyable' to the arthouse crowd to watch his flamboyance as opposed to Israel's dowdy repression. Dolly Wells is excellent as a mousy bookseller.
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? tells its basic tale well, even if its a bit too orderly (ironic, because one of the critiques of Israel's own writing was that it lacked personality), but McCarthy and Grant make it worthwhile.
Yet, even though Lee Isreal (Melissa McCarthy) isn't one of those writers, her story is just as entertaining and captivating as one of the greats.
Isreal, played masterfully by McCarthy, is a frumpy, miserable biographer who has profiled some iconic subjects, including Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder; the later who was easily responsible for destroying her career due to a less than favourable depiction. After her biography of Lauder, Isreal quickly declined into a life of alcoholism, wage labour and loneliness. Can You Ever Forgive Me? picks up right at Israel's multitude of misfortune; showcasing her inability to pay rent, live in less than sanitary living conditions and barely being able to support herself and her sick cat, Jersey.
After being fired from her job for drinking while working, Isreal coincidentally runs into an old acquaintance Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) at a local bar. While the two reminisce of 'pissing' off some guests at a recent party, the two share some stories, drinks and laughs together, and quickly become drinking buddies and eventual friends, much to Isreal's surprise. The chemistry between McCarthy and Grant, although not romantic, is reminiscent of some of the best Bonnie and Clyde type pairings in film in recent memory. While the duo are both very different personalities, thanks to the forceless acting of both nuanced and comedic actors, Lee and Jack bounce off one another's miscreant behaviour as if they were two hyenas; starving on the streets of New York, drunk with possibility, old memories and wonderment. Watching Can You Ever Forgive Me? just for the promise of getting some of the best buddy-con comedy moments of 2018, would be an understatement.
Yet, no matter how many good times and stiff drinks the two share, the realities of the real world comes crumbling down on them in disarraying fashion, especially onto Isreal. Threatened with eviction and the possibility of losing her cat at any given moment due to its declining health, as fate would have it, Isreal stumbles across a genuine letter written by Fanny Brice during her research at a local library. Thinking of it more as a meal ticket than as a collectors piece, Isreal sells the letter to a local bookstore collector Anna (Dolly Wells), thus giving her the brilliant idea to embellish other letters by prominent celebrity figures for monetary gain. Visiting local archives and stealing original letters, embellishing her own letters out of thin air or adding her own flair to already existing letters, Isreal's escapades amounted to over four-hundred forged pieces of work.
While the real-life Israel passed away in 2014, the author's most infamous works still remain to be her criminal activity and the embellishment of these letters, as well as the confessional novel in which this movie is based on. While upon its release, many critics, publishers and the literary community found the novel to be overtly tongue-in-cheek, and merely another form of a meal ticket for Isreal following her criminal activity. Yet, the film itself is a very sombre and lumpy depiction, very carefully avoiding as much spectacle, glamour and embellishment of its own, telling a very straight forward story of a woman who is down on her luck and who's back is against the wall, left with no other options.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? wouldn't be able to exist without the quite exquisite performance of McCarthy; its clear she wasn't copying anyone else while portraying an unpleasant woman with not much positivity in her life. McCarthy, who was recommended to the director by her husband Ben Falcone, already being cast in a role, following the departure of Julianne Moore, puts to rest any unease one may have about a dramatic career for the infamously notorious comedienne, who's rise to fame came quickly and almost unexpectedly in 2011 following a star making performance in Bridesmaids. McCarthy showcases a range of excellent sleight and dry comedic demure with her negativity, slightly giving the audiences glimpses of her dark wit and using it towards an unlikable character whose moral compass isn't very aligned with the realities and expectations of the world.
Alongside her partner in crime, McCarthy's performance is so nuanced yet gripping, it elevates the performances of everyone around her, including Dolly Wells, a naive and charming inherited bookstore owner who also shows some interest in Isreal's talent and personality. Isreal's interaction, including a very emotionally closed off 'date' with Anna at a restaurant are among the most memorable scenes in the film. Luckily for the tone of the film, none of these interactions are overtly showy, which sits respectfully next to the tone of film. Sadly, as we've seen too many times in the past, Academy Awards voters aren't always easily convinced with very subtle and quietly ingenious performances. It's without question that the studio and actress herself will be campaigning for a Best Actress Nomination come this holiday season, but only time will tell whether voters will respond to the actress's transformation.
While Can You Ever Forgive Me? could be a hard film to recommend to others, due mostly to the fact that mentioning McCarthy's name may give general audiences' some sort of physical, goof-ball level comedic performance expectations, no thanks to horrid roles for McCarthy in The Boss and Tammy. Yet, McCarthy proves she is not to be underestimated. Can You Ever Forgive Me? may not prove to be the best performance by an actress in 2018, but it sure as heck may be the most pleasantly surprising; a type of performance audiences can clap and root for come Awards season and for many other comedy actresses in the near future. Here is looking at you Kate McKinnon.
With a truck load of high-octane Oscar-baiting American films like A Star is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody, it's refreshing to experience a small film like Can You Ever Forgive Me to remember what most European films are like: character driven. Those are films without much CGI and with much sparkling dialogue from actors who enjoy the words rather than the nominations that may follow.
The true-life story of writer and literary forger Lee Israel, a lesbian who had some success forging letters from literati like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward until she was caught, is embodied by Melissa McCarthy, playing an over-weight, misanthropic alcoholic who has written some well-received. biographies but now is in writer's block.
Tom Clancy is depicted at a Village party as saying the block was invented by writers to justify their laziness. So much for a sweet story about writing.
McCarthy will make you forget her brilliant comic turn and Oscar-nominated role in Bridesmaids as she shows the depressed side of a writer who nevertheless comes through with some witty and funny lines.
On her way to a good living forging she is aided by best friend and fellow alcoholic Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a character and actor playing admirable second-banana to Lee's sardonic reality. Together they are fun fraudsters until he turns state's evidence on her. When the two are together at a gay bar, Julius's (the actual bar where Lee hung out), I get whiffs of the old screwball comedy where insults quickly parried, are true comedy.
No grand moments appear in this little caper movie, just sweet moments between Lee, the booksellers she defrauds, her loveable cat, and naughty Jack. When she awkwardly deflects the romantic vibe from a sweet bookseller, McCarthy reveals a vulnerable misfit who is nonetheless charming in her loneliness. As I said, Europeans love this kind of slow, character-driven thriller.
You will, too.
THIS FILM IS RECOMMENDED.
IN BRIEF: Two great performances enhance a true tale about breaking the law.
JIM'S REVIEW: Lee Israel is a down-on-her-luck misanthropic writer who admittingly "likes cats more than people" and drink excessively. No one is interested in her novels, no one cares about her either. She is a sad lonely woman who isolates herself from the world and the world seems to prefer it that way too. Forced to survive, Lee decides that becoming a literary forger, complete with dead celebrity signatures, may actually be a more profitable vocation. Played with total honesty and conviction by Melissa McCartney, she becomes a most compelling character of worth in this fact-based biography, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Solidly directed by Marielle Heller and with a literate screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty that captures the 90's sensibilities very well, the film spends a great deal of time establishing Lee's self-enforced exile from the human race and her get-rich scheme. The storytelling becomes a tad monotonous and is more leisurely paced than necessary. But the true life story of an author unable to cope with the harsh realities of life is always a fascinating subject.
And Ms. McCartney is a wonder, showing the full gamut of emotion. She restrains her great comic prowess and exchanges it for genuine pathos and vulnerability. Never allowing her character to become overly sympathetic or too much a victim, Ms. McCartney makes Lee a pathetic yet shrewd criminal. Abetting Lee is her partner-in-crime, a flamboyantly gay Jack Hoch. Richard E. Grant is superb as her only friend and carefree accomplice. These two misfits become a wonderful tag team and bring much nuance to their well written roles. They are both deserving of award consideration. Fine support also comes from its strong cast which includes Dolly Wells, Stephen Spinella, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavera Smith, and Jane Curtain as Lee's frustrated agent.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a nicely honed character study that provides an acting showcase for the talented Ms. M. who hopefully will have more dramatic opportunities in her future cinematic ventures.
I found the film very engrossing and it kept my attention. I did NOT walk out of the theater cheering, or weeping, but truly satisfied that I got to witness an extraordinary work of art. And, I learned a lot about 20th century literature.
That's not to say her performance isn't noteworthy, because it is. She plays Lee Israel, a real life writer who had success as a celebrity biographer in the 1970's and 1980's, and then turned to a life of crime as a forger of collectible letters. This (mostly) true story of Ms. Israel features Ms. McCarthy in a poorly cut wig, very little make-up and the frumpiest of frumpy clothes. She's also an aggressively bitter person who, in the film's opening scene, get fired from her job in 1991 for drinking scotch at her desk and telling a co-worker to "F-off". Classy, she's not. Her actions and this firing are our indoctrination into her caustic personality.
Director Marielle Heller is no stranger to examining the life of someone who is not so happy, as she is best known as the writer/director of THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015). Her latest is adapted from Lee Israel's memoir by screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (ENOUGH SAID, 2013) and Jeff Whitty. After her firing, Ms. Israel hits desperate times. Her publisher (an always terrific Jane Curtain) tells her that a Fanny Brice biography has no market, and that no one wants to work with Israel anymore ... she has burned every bridge. Fanny Brice and Tom Clancy both take some shots here as Israel tries to defend herself by dragging down others ... a personality trait not uncommon among those who are so miserable in life.
As we watch this alcoholic, slovenly, abrasive person muddle through days - only showing any affection for her pet cat - there is quite a clever scene that could seem like filler were it not for what happens soon afterwards. Ms. Israel is at home watching THE LITTLE FOXES on TV and we see her perfectly mimicking Bette Davis. This ability to imitate others leads her into a career path of forging and selling personal letters "from" the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. It also finds her crossing paths with miscreant Jack Hock (a flamboyant and energetic Richard E Grant). The two misfits form an odd friendship and partnership that begins to cash flow.
A sequence between independent bookstore owner Anna (a talented and under-utilized Dolly Wells) and Lee Israel teases us with the idea of a love interest, but Ms. McCarthy is unable to convince us that Lee's vulnerability is genuine, and the potential relationship soon fizzles thanks to Lee's crankiness and criminal path. While watching, I couldn't help but feel that I was being manipulated into feeling sympathy towards Lee Israel, simply because she is a lonely female criminal. Typically male criminals in movies are social outcasts to be despised and/or feared, so this trickery is a bit unsettling. Personally, I find it difficult to muster sympathy towards any criminal, no matter their gender or how pathetic their life and personality might be.
The best film to date about a forger, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, worked because of the cat and mouse between good and bad, and the criminal at the center was overflowing with personality. Here, we are stuck with a curmudgeon who uses multiple typewriters to create fake letters ... all in the confines of a dirty apartment she shares with her cat. Were it not for Ms. McCarthy's expertise at delivering caustic one-liners or Mr. Grant's impeccable comic timing, this drama would fall flat. If we ever doubted the manipulation, be prepared for two kitty cat scenes designed to elicit "aww" from the audience.
Director Heller does a nice job of presenting an early 1990's feel for New York, including the gay bar Julius', which is evidently still in existence today. There is also an interesting point made about how collectors want to believe, so the authentication process is crucial to the industry - though we can't help but wonder about potential fraud. On the downside, there is really nothing dryer than watching a writer write ... even someone as miserable as Lee Israel, and even on collectible typewriters. Additionally, the score and soundtrack were much too loud for the film, and proved quite distracting in certain scenes. A Paul Simon song near the end seems like a plea for Oscar consideration, but by then, we are just relieved that the bad guy got caught. But that kitty ... aww.
McCarthy is an eye-opener here as the hard-drinking, acid-tongued Israel, a miserable middle-aged woman who sought friendship in precious few souls, one of them being a mysterious figure on the Upper West Side portrayed with fierce verve by Richard E. Grant, who winds up becoming something of an accomplice to her enterprise. She is desperate to pay her bills. His murky story becomes more known as the film progresses. The two of them are an odd couple, as they both have setbacks and misery to look back upon, but their pessimism and misanthrope are not equally shared.
This film will offer a glimpse of nostalgia for anyone who remembers New York in a now quaint era, when struggling writers still lived as adults in Manhattan, when life was endearingly bleak and bookstores were not yet massive chains. That sense of atmosphere I greatly admire. Recommended to anyone who enjoys a scathing story of literary scheming.
Given the subject and the characters, the performances and movie can be seen as a bit of a triumph, but in the end, I could not really care about anyone in the movie. The most interesting thing about it were the scenes shot in the venerable Argosy Book Store, where I have been a customer for half a century -- it looks like the first time in longer than that that the place was neatened, even minimally.
My wife spent years trying to guard valuable collections from pilfering and it was a joy to see a story that touched on that scholarly but risky world.
Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, one-time bestselling author of biographies who begins forging and selling letters from other famous authors as a way to keep herself afloat during hard times. The irony is that the talent she puts into impersonating others could have been directed into a work of her own if alcoholism, depression, and deeply-rooted misanthropy hadn't prevented it.
McCarthy commits herself completely to playing this incredibly unpleasant woman, and to its credit, neither she nor the film asks for our sympathy. But even if I'm not obligated to feel pity, I need some reason for spending time with characters as pitiful and wretched as the ones in this film. Forgive me for not caring all that much about what happens to someone who has seen a successful career as a writer come to a halt because she has burned every bridge available through being a complete douche to everyone she comes across. To temper her nastiness, the film also gives us Richard E. Grant in the role of friend and eventual partner in crime, and while he's certainly more fun loving, he's also depressing in his own way and exists more as a stereotype of a flaming queen than a fully realized character. The world of collectibles and the fraud that runs rampant in it would probably have made for a more interesting movie, but alas, that's not the movie we get.
My favorite thing about "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" was the performance of Dolly Wells as owner of a bookstore and tentative romantic interest for Lee Israel. I spent the whole movie wishing I could get away from the musty negativity swarming around the main characters and go out for coffee with her instead.
The Advantage of Can you Ever Forgive Me? is that it looks like a drama, so I'm expecting it to go another way so when McCarthy lays down a good laugh it hits me hard. It's the most amusing stories I've seen in a while.
A true story about Lee Israel who was a best selling Arthur that hit a rut, and could not get interest in another book, but found another way to make cash by writing letters she past on as the works of other writers.
If you think about the movie in perspective, though an interesting topic, especially for a round the table conversation over coffee, but an entire movie? I guess that's the magic of Lee Israel's writing, who wrote a book that this movie is getting it's info from.
McCarthy gives a stellar performance stepping out of her safe zone to show you a little depth as writer cliche (During this time in her life (1991 to be exact) Israel was an old and bitter booze hound hanging out in bars trying to hang onto the fame of her last book while hating on Tom Clancy whose getting paid three million dollars to write swallow macho idiocy while she can't even get a book deal cause she's too much of an artist to play the game
McCarthy does have one buffer in the movie in the shape of her husband Ben Falcone who plays a book shop owner who does not look too hard at the letters he's buying from Israel.
Absolutely adorable Picture by McCarthy
Maybe it got a lot more exciting in the last 30 minutes, but I doubt it.
In my humble opinion, MM needs to stick with light hearted comedies. They are decent and always good for a few laughs. She won't win any Academy Awards, but she will keep her bank account nice and fat.
To me the real surprise is the delightful Richard E. Grant in the portrayal of Jack Hock. He's ideal in the role of both the accidental friend and criminal cohort. Think a touch of Jeff Goldblum and a bit of Matthew Broderick ... just enough whimsy to keep you wanting more.
Story line isn't complicated .. you know where its headed and the ultimate outcome.