CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
Director: Marielle Heller
Screenwriters: Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
Richard E. Grant
Anna Deavere Smith
Runtime: 106 mins.
Australian release date: 6 December 2018
Previewed at: Event Gold Class Cinemas, George Street, Sydney, on 29 November 2018.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the 2008 memoir of the same name by Lee Israel, a writer who specialised in profiles and biographies of celebrities, including multi-Oscar-winner Katharine Hepburn, flamboyant actress Tallulah Bankhead, American journalist and games show panellist Dorothy Kilgallen (listed on the New York Times bestseller list) and, lastly, make-up empire founder Estée Lauder. Unfortunately, after the success of her previous works in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Israel made a strategic error in rushing out her unauthorised biography of the cosmetics’ queen in order to avoid being pre-empted by Lauder’s autobiography and received much criticism for her efforts, resulting in the book being a commercial flop.
The film opens in 1991 at 3.30 in the morning, where we see Lee (Melissa McCarthy) throwing down a large whiskey on the rocks while working in a menial job checking copy at The New Yorker. She’s in a foul mood, as usual, and her obscene language causes consternation among her workmates, resulting in her being sacked on the spot. Unfortunately, along with being financially compromised, suffering writer’s block and possessing a heavy-duty penchant for hard liquor, Lee is also on the outer with her publisher, Marjorie (Jane Curtin). When she turns up to an industry soirée at Marjorie’s apartment quipping that her invite ‘must have gone astray’, she is told in no uncertain terms that her writing style is redundant and there is zero interest in her next project on comedienne and singer Fanny Brice. Desperate, with no idea how she will survive, 51-year-old Lee is sitting in her local watering hole, the famous gay bar Julius, drowning her sorrows, when a louche character, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), introduces himself and commences a relationship (friendship would be the wrong word) that thrives on sarcasm, wit, emotional need and support for one another. The rest is history, as Lee finds a way to make money that draws on her considerable writing skills and knowledge of famous authors. There’s only one problem - it’s illegal. She forges deceased writers’ letters, including quirky embellishments that make them highly saleable and collectible, and realistic enough to be judged authentic. When her prolific work begins to attract attention, the dissolute Jack uses his charm to sell the missives on to dealers, for a commission of course.
Director Marielle Heller made her directorial debut with the bold film The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015 and her sophomore feature deals with an equally engaging female character. Co-scriptwriter Nicole Holofcener also directs and writes movies that are primarily about women and, indeed, was earmarked to direct Can You Ever Forgive Me? at one stage. McCarthy is simply brilliant as the jaded writer who prefers the company of her cat over that of human beings. She radiates Israel’s uncaring, thoroughly misanthropic aura, yet manages to make her sympathetic by wordlessly conveying that this acerbic woman has been deeply hurt at some crucial juncture in her life. Israel is similar to many people who live alone in big cities like New York, whose survival is often accomplished through gritted teeth and bloody mindedness, and McCarthy convincingly portrays her ‘aloneness’, rather than loneliness. Israel, it seems, only had affection for her ex, Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith). Grant’s performance is equally dazzling, successfully balancing Jack’s fey criminality with his irresistible Bohemian eccentricity. The fact that they find themselves drawn to each other is completely believable. NYC provides the perfect backdrop for this, at times, sad but also uplifting tale of a couple of misfits who exist by their wits on the edge of society. There is also a good many classic New York-infused songs on the terrific soundtrack, sung by artists like Blossom Dearie, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee, Patti Page, Dinah Washington and even Lou Reed. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a wonderful, captivating experience.