Truth is always stranger than fiction and this newest film from co-writer Nicole Holofcener and director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) confirms this adage. Melissa McCarthy stars as Lee Israel, a forgotten author living in New York who discovers she possesses a lucrative skill–forgery of personal letters from past literary geniuses. With sophisticated sarcasm and a toxic personality, she somehow also forges a friendship with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) and together, the unlikely pair rises and eventually suffers the consequences of their actions. It’s a beautifully layered story that digs beneath the surface, eloquently revealing who these two characters truly are.
We meet Lee living in squalor, a dark and filthy apartment where she and her cat spend each and every day. With her rent past due, she attempts to sell books to a used book store, not only rejected, but to have salt poured in the wound as she is bluntly reminded of her failures. Desperately seeking an advance on a new book from her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtain), we learn more about the shortcomings of this once successful author who no longer sees the world from her high horse.
Lee is desperate. Clinging on to her want to write a biography about Fannie Brice, she finds what will eventually be her demise…a letter written by Brice which Lee sells. Learning of its value, Lee begins to write several letters from various deceased authors. The “business” flourishes and her new-found drinking buddy, Jack, gets in on the action. Together, two lost souls and friendless, seemingly drifting through life looking in the rearview mirror fondly, find solace and comfort in one another.
The friendship between Hock and Israel is one of the most striking aspects of this story. A gay man seeing his life pass him by and a woman who is so guarded that she doesn’t even allow herself to see who she is. They do see one another quite clearly and like a volcano rumbling, there is bound to be an eruption. There’s another element of love in this film, a love that Israel begins to discover for a bookshop owner. This endears us to Israel as we begin to truly understand who she is and more importantly, why she is the way she is.
The story unfolds as if peeling away layers, one supporting another, complicated with subtle tones to bring you into the Israel’s life and emotions. The dialogue, richly textured and eloquent, accentuates the delicate artistry of the actors’ skills. McCarthy embodies this astute and troubled writer, giving a performance that is not only unmistakably authentic, but also memorable. She is a master of drama, keenly using her comedic understanding of human nature to deliver a complicated character that we can all relate to and love. And most importantly, she reminds us that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover–everyone has issues with which they are dealing. Grant, in his role as Jack Hock, brings the laughs and levity to the film, balancing the gravity of each of the main characters’ situations. Grant and McCarthy are unexpectedly magical in this film and of course, McCarthy’s real life hubby has a cameo as well.
The style of filming and coloring of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” brings us back to an era, particularly of NYC. There’s a certain grit and grain that allows us to feel the environment. The green and brown hues that overlay the story, bring us into the dimly lit bookshops and the seedy bar environment. And one of the final scenes in the film taking place in the courtroom, could have easily been overdone with Hollywood flare, but there are unexpected developments, and with precision camera work and direction, it elicits a response within that makes you want to stand up and cheer!
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a brilliant story of a gifted writer, Lee Israel, whose life took an unusual path due to dire circumstances. McCarthy and Grant push their acting skills to a new and profoundly memorable level thanks to the skillful direction of Marielle Heller and a script that would probably make Israel herself proud. This story, told from a perspective that allows us all to relate to Israel and her situation, is a remarkably engaging and captivating story that will make it a top film for me this year!