Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Review
Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is a writer who gets fired for drinking excessively on the job. She is scraping bottom. And a series of increasing setbacks lead to a desperation so profound that she is forced to carry out deeds she would never have imagined doing - including the theft of a much needed coat and some toilet paper. McCarthy is perfectly wonderful in the part of Israel. It's obvious she has mastered her acting craft and demonstrates her versatility, from superb comic to this tour de force performance.
After years of drinking and bitterness, Israel has alienated everyone around her. And the essence of her character is defined by her relationship with her cat. As she says at one point, she relates better to her cat than to any human. This is proved time and again with every human interaction. One of her only acts of compassion is seen through her devotion to her pet when she takes it to the vet because it won’t eat. Faced with a bill for $40, McCarthy shows her skillful abilities as she expresses the true depth of her despair, racked with painful guilt and overwhelming frustration when she can not pay.
Shunned by friends and her literary manager, Israel can no longer escape the fact that she is a 67-year old burned out author who is bitchy, introverted, hostile and alcoholic. This is when the plot truly kicks in. SPOILER: With the hope of catching her own fall, she begins creating versions of letters from famous writers. Pretending to do research for a book about alcoholic writers, Lee finds letters by prominent authors and slips out the original letters from the Yale library replacing them with forgeries she has created. A lesser actor with such a comedic background would make it all too easy to laugh at these moments. But McCarthy loses herself in the role and earns respect as a dramatic actress, leaving the audience in suspense as to her success, as well as her capture.
Israel does manage to maintain a type of friendship with one person, another down and outer, Jack Hawk played by Richard E. Grant. Grant gives a quirky portrayal of Hawk, who is a flamboyant, over the hill rouge who has seen much better days. But however much you want to like him he gives little reason to do so. The actor's own charm is the only reason you can tolerate the character at all. Which is the only reason that makes it believable that in a moment of confession, Israel tells Hawk about her “creative endeavor.” Hawk becomes Israel's accomplice in crime, ultimately becoming her front when she lands on the FBI's radar and is put on the “no buy list” by every collection house in town.
As expected, the partnership breaks under pressure. Hawk pockets some of the money he receives, brings a lover back to Israel's apartment, trashes the place, and neglects the care of the cat, which results in its death. McCarthy conveys a moving depth of loss combined with an anger that is felt across the footlights. At the same time, Grant provokes the animosity of the audience as he offers no apology for the chaos or tragedy. He lies, and claims that Lee used him. This flies in the face of reality, as she gave him all she could. And the suspension of disbelief is challenged when Israel asks Hawk to front for her once again, mostly because she has no one else to turn to and he needs the money. As the audience expects, this ill-advised grasp for one more pay day pushes their luck too far and the FBI apprehends Jack for selling forged letters. This comes as no surprise and is needlessly telegraphed to the viewer long before it happens - a real no-no for screenplays. Hawk spills the beans and Israel is arrested.
In a brilliant twist of the tale, while at trail Israel rebukes the advice of her lawyer and tells the judge she is proud of her forged letters because it proves how good a writer she is. This admission once again gives McCarthy to show her apt ability to capture the true nature of the character. There are no tears pleading for sympathy, but rather the honest confession of one who feels cheated out of a life that should have been better.
She is imprisoned, but ultimately gets probation. She returns to her apartment and begins to right a new piece of the non-fiction about her escapades. But this time she is writing with a new-found zeal, a new kitten, and a new computer. It's sad that such a great writing talent as Lee Israel can so easily ruin their life and career. At least, her sardonic sense of humor is one salvation. That humor shows as Israel ponders about her shot at heaven, but she knows all of her chances have been squandered.
All in all, it’s a good tale, sad and true, but not a film for whistling a happy tune as you exit.