By Evan Lambert
Far before Lee Israel, the real-life figure at the heart of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, ever commits forgery, the movie itself has already lied to us. In the first twenty minutes, Israel, a profile writer for celebrities, makes drunk plans to meet up with a new friend whom she barely knows – and then actually meets up with him. It’s an exaggeration, a work of pure fiction, a wish-fulfillment that could only be dreamed up by a Hollywood screenwriter. No one honors their drunk plans in real life.
Perhaps Israel’s loneliness is what propels her to meet her new friend. It’s a loneliness that is conveyed through shots of solitary statues and of trenchcoated figures sauntering into the foggy unknown. It’s also captured perfectly by Melissa McCarthy, her puckish misanthropy twisting itself into fits of fury and desperation.
Perhaps the openly gay Israel’s loneliness is also what drives her to forge dead literary figures’ letters for cash. While a money-making venture at first, the forgery soon becomes Israel’s sole method of engaging with a world that has cast her off. Channeling the voices of literary icons across time and space, Israel is able to rediscover her love of writing and share her talents with a new audience. She is a conduit for literary brilliance, a ghostwriter for greats.
But you’d never suspect any of that if you met her. Clad in neutral tweeds and a Dorothy Hamill ‘do, she is a human version of the Baskerville font — and no less prickly. At turns caustic, sardonic, and gleefully cruel, she cuts through New York like a lesbian machete. Her healthiest relationships are with her typewriter and her cat.
But this story isn’t just about Israel, a curmudgeon with a heart of mold. It’s also about friendship, the value of art, and a twelve-year-old cat named Jersey. Moreover, it’s at its best when it focuses on the twin towers of snark that are Israel and her loyal friend Jack Hock. Played to campy, soulful perfection by Richard E. Grant, Hock is a font of sass who provides the impetus for the first of McCarthy’s two major Oscar moments. Speaking of which: The bulk of Forgive Me’s tragedy lies comfortably beneath its brittle surface, but McCarthy digs deep to ensure that tragedy breaks through and devastates you. She understands how Israel plunges herself into her art and dredges up literary brilliance, then leaves her heart in the resultant vacuum. She also understands how Israel’s heart will forever beat there, maddeningly, as it remains protected from those who want its oxygen. She also understands that Israel will forever belong to that heart, even as it rots.
McCarthy understands this, and mines this, and begs you to love her.
Flagrantly Rated: **** (4 out of 5 stars)