“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018) 

Drama

Written by: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty based on‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ by Lee Israel

Directed by: Marielle Heller

Featuring: Melissa McCarthy , Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella and Ben Falcone 

Lee Israel:“Jack Hock, you said?”

Jack Hock:“That’s me. The renegade, the rebel. Jack Hock, big cock.”

One of the cinematic highlights of last year, as well as a pleasant surprise overall is released this week on DVD, that being the excellent as well as multiple Oscar nominated “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (2018), based around part of the life of writer (and con artist) Lee Israel, who was as unique an individual as one could ever hope to find. In fact I would go so far as to say there have been few people like her since her death in 2014. Although this movie is framed as a biopic about Israel, in particular her part (a major one) in the forging of celebrity letters and autographs it is actually a buddy movie in disguise, as it concentrates on the stressed friendship between Israel and Jack Hock, someone very little is known about, but who was important in Israel’s life as her accomplice, but more importantly a friend and confidant. In fact it is the surprising dynamic between the two that fills this film out in the most interesting of ways. It is surprising for a story about a forger then that this is more a character piece that plays out like a literary ‘Lethal Weapon’ with two performances from two fine actors who both could be described as character actors but prove their worth here as well as to any film being produced today. 

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has to walk a tightrope between portraying what was a serious crime as well as the ridiculousness it is to pay large amounts of money for what are scraps of paper that have over the years become collectable, for no reason other than perceived celebrity. The film also has to show the scope of the crimes committed, in what is explained to audiences, as an industry fraught with deceit, of course Israel took it to a another level entirely with her brazen attempts, both successful and not, of creating realistic counterfeits that fooled almost everyone, at times within the narrative you may even expect her to get away with it. But no matter the outcome this film stays the course not giving in to what could have been something different by not hedging its bets, keeping it intensely personal providing us with two people that are not only out of time, but becoming obsolete as we watch them, they are hard living, hard talking and willing to bet everything on each other as all great onscreen partnerships do, think Joe Buck and Ratso from the classic “Midnight Cowboy” (1969) if you want a good comparison.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, set in 1991, follows, author Lee Israel as she struggles with financial troubles, writer’s block and alcoholism. With her agent unable to secure her an advance for a new book, Israel is forced to sell her possessions to cover expenses, selling a personal letter she received from Katharine Hepburn to local book dealer Anna. While conducting research for a potential Fanny Brice biography, Israel discovers two letters written by Brice, one of which she takes and shows to Anna. Anna gives a low offer due to the letter’s bland content, prompting Israel to return home, add a postscript to the second letter, and bring it back to Anna, who takes the letter for $350. Israel then starts forging and selling further letters by deceased celebrities, incorporating intimate details in an attempt to command higher prices. 

This film went through a number of iterations before it landed onscreen, it was co-written by Nicole Holofcener who was also originally tasked with directing but ended up handing the reigns over to Marielle Heller who was looking to follow up on her debut, the critically acclaimed “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (2015), which she also wrote. What Heller has been able to accomplish is to take someone else’s script, moulding it into a coherent drama that has many touches of humour through the ever-present humanity of both characters who are tragic in their own inimitable ways. The film has a streamlined as well as efficient way in which the narrative complements the plot which while being linear in nature gives us insight into the way celebrity alters over a period of years and how those changes can have an effect on people who live off the idea of celebrity. We live in a celebrity (mostly) driven culture, which has only magnified with the advent of social media since the days of Lee Israel’s biographies that kept her career alive until they didn’t, as tastes changed but she was unable to adapt. Of course Israel has an aspect of herself that she was unable to alter, her abrupt and sometimes caustic personality that comes across in this film at points like a comic part but as an audience we soon realise this was her, one hundred per cent, which seems to be one of the reasons she is unable to alter how she makes her way in life. This aspect of Lee means she is not only unable to make alterations to her work, but it costs her much, a career, money, relationships and possibly the most important thing of all, love.

There is no doubt in my mind that the key to this film, with any of its potential success comes down to the casting of the two co-stars in Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant who give career best performances that were rewarded with acting Oscar nominations although both lost which was a great injustice, especially for Grant. Both McCarthy and Grant came to the project late in the day but are totally professional exhibiting onscreen chemistry that seems so natural you would be forgiven for thinking they were friends in real life, they, of course, are not. Most obviously it is Grant with his own unique way of playing over the top characters that really steals the entire film from everyone, the real people as well, it is a master class of how to not only read a semi fictional person but also how to fill in the blanks so as to inform the plot, by defining the traits of the person you are portraying in three dimensions. Melissa McCarthy who is mostly known for comedies, playing characters who are likable, here has to show a side audiences have not seen, the unlikeable protagonist that we must side with, but also understand that she has to be caught, paying a price so that she does seem like a victim, she does this extremely well.

One of the elements that I found refreshing was the look back at a pre 9/11 New York where life seemed easier, there was not the feeling that permeates other movies set in the same location and the idea that someone ripping people off using fake letters seems somehow innocent and quaint. There are no hints of what is to come nor the society that will take shape after 9/11, or even the way society has polarised like we have in 2019, it is a tale of a bygone era that we will not see for some time to come, certainly not in my lifetime. 

When I first viewed this film I was surprised by just how much I loved it, from its obvious first class performances, to its unusual subject matter through to the narrative where it becomes obvious early on that the scam Lee is running will not last, the only question remaining is how will she pay and will her friendship with Jack go the distance. I recommend “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” highly; it should be seen, not only that but it should be added to any collection as it is an instant classic.

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