Female Filmmaker Friday: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
We’ve all been in a bind before. Gas is running empty, a random assortment of food is in your fridge and you think to yourself “If I were on Chopped, what would I do?”, add to this a social life that is out the door because you’re barely making it by the skin of your teeth. Then that glorious paycheck hits and the cycle starts all over again. If you haven’t experienced this, then you’re lucky. In Can You Ever Forgive Me? the circumstances of Lee Israel’s life feel all too familiar, even if our minds might not go quite as far as she’s willing too.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is about the brazen life of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy). Being a prolific biographer in the beginning of her career, Israel had focused her life on writing biographies about early Hollywood stars. However, times have changed and now Israel cannot seem to make her early fame relevant again. After being fired from her job, Israel finds herself having difficulty making ends meet. Bills pile up, her loving cat is ill, she takes comfort in alcohol and pushes away everyone in her life except her friend Jack (Richard Grant). She can’t get an advance on her next book, her agent proclaiming that her subject matter is too boring, so Israel tearfully pawns a written letter from Katharine Hepburn to try and make a small step forward.
While researching more information for her new biography on early Hollywood star Fanny Brice, Israel stumbles upon typed letters written by Brice in a book. In Israel fashion, she departs the library with said letters to sell for some extra cash. After finding out she wasn’t going to get substantial amounts of money for the Brice letters due to boring content, Israel starts down a criminal path of forgery and deception.
What better way to make money than selling fake letters “written” by prominent deceased writers and entertainers? This is what Israel did. She creatively concocted secret lives for famous individuals to make them seem more entertaining, then sold the letters to bookstores around New York. Raking in cash while tricking buyers left and right did the trick. Unfortunately, Israel must employ Jack to do business for her after her name goes on an FBI list of people not to buy from, after a Noel Coward letter was found to be suspicious. Jack turns his back on Israel after a heated battle ensues between the two.
People will do whatever it takes to make ends meet. When life isn’t going the way you want, personally and in your career, your mind wanders on what to do. In Israel’s case, she is a brute woman who doesn’t hold back. She came up with a plan and she stuck to it. It may have given her many years of probation, mandatory AA meetings, and six months house arrest, but she did it. Upon end credits, we are told that Israel had forged over 400 letters in her criminal run and she’s proud of it.
Director Marielle Heller is a queen. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a perfectly paced gem that not enough people are seeing. We’re so used to seeing Melissa McCarthy in comedy, and it is beyond refreshing to see her portray such a narcissistic, down-to-earth character. Melissa McCarthy and Richard Grant’s chemistry together is delectable, which helps to make their scenes together flow smoothly and makes watching their antics all the better. The two are complete opposites, but they do say opposites attract.
What I also found so wonderful was that, for once, we have a plus-sized character that isn’t used solely for comic relief. Too many times Hollywood has fallen back on the plus-sized character as a source of mockery, not given a proper chance, and not taken seriously by the people around her. Heller gives this breath of fresh air giving it a go with McCarthy. This is her best role to date.
We’re also graced with an ever wonderful script from Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Can You Ever Forgive Me? gives you exactly what you’re looking for and doesn’t feel the need to overcomplicate its ideas. It doesn’t feel over the top in any aspect and is grounded with respect and believability. Biopics tend to feel inflated or dramatized, but after reading up on the actual facts of the story, most of Holofcener and Whitty’s script sticks true to the life of Lee Israel.
I remember seeing Heller’s first film The Diary of a Teenage Girl and loving it in 2015. Since then I have been patiently waiting for her next endeavor. Even though I missed seeing this at Telluride, I have been set on seeing this as soon as I could. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is by no means an upbeat feel-good type of film. It’s sad and heartbreaking but Marielle Heller’s direction is filled with warmth, never allowing the experience of watching her movie to become a chore. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is currently sitting at a comfortable 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, and is a little slice of female-directed heaven that should not be passed up.