Can You Ever Forgive Me?

REVIEW: Yours insincerley…. Melissa McCarthy puts her stamp on the role of author-turned-forger Lee Israel in this love letter to New York.

Whatever happened to New York movies? Is it the films that have changed or the place itself? Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a reminder of a genre and a place that seems to have almost vanished: one of smart-ass intellectuals in seedy Manhattan apartments, passing their time in giant wood-panelled bookshops – ones that are doing so well they’re prepared to hand over hundreds of dollars in cash for celebrity letters of dubious provenance.

Here is a film that is set in 1991 but could just as easily have been made thirty years earlier, when dramas about the desperate lives of those on the city’s fringes could genuinely result in big box office. It has the heft of those New Hollywood movies too: witty dialogue, flawed characters and enough confidence in its own audience to not have to spell out every element of subtext. It says a lot about the state of the modern movie business that Marielle Heller’s film hasn’t received the nod for either Best Director or Best Picture at the Oscars; in its place Peter Farrelly’s dubious and didactic Green Book.

But what can you expect of an institution that gave Forrest Gump the big gong over Pulp Fiction? Even if there’s only room for one nostalgic fact-based drama in the awards season short-lists, this is the one to see.

I don’t know if the real Lee Israel was such an ornery old bitch who ‘liked cats a lot more than people,’ but McCarthy isn’t afraid to play her that way.

Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a biographer who once topped the New York Times bestsellers list but is now facing hard times. Israel is alcoholic and splenetic: in the opening scene we see her lose her day job as a copyeditor, not only for drinking whisky at her desk, but for telling her boss to go fuck himself when he asks her to stop.

Israel can’t catch a break: nobody is interested in publishing her work; her agent avoids her calls. She doesn’t help herself by displaying a complete lack of interpersonal skills – she’s more likely to steal your coat than to schmooze her way into a new contract when invited to a party for New York’s literary movers and shakers.

Faced with a sick cat, three month’s back rent and an apartment in dire need of repair, she attempts to raise cash by selling off some old memorabilia she’d acquired in the course of her work, the most lucrative of which turns out to be a framed letter from Katherine Hepburn. This covers some costs, and when Israel discovers another letter during her research into Vaudeville actress Fanny Brice, she steals it to sell, only this time adding her own little post-script – a personal aside that should increase its market value.

When this subterfuge goes well, it’s not long before Israel is forging letters wholesale, using her experience as a biographer to impersonate her favourite literary figures, among them Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker.

One of those films-they-just-don’t-make-anymore that they do occasionally still make.

She is aided and abetted by a drinking buddy, Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), a dandyish old soak of no fixed abode who, like her, is putting a brave face on living on his wits to barely manage getting by.

Grant is lively and touching as the dissolute Hock, and much has been made of his long-deserved Oscar nomination, but this is McCarthy’s film. I don’t know if the real Lee Israel was such an ornery old bitch who ‘liked cats a lot more than people,’ but McCarthy isn’t afraid to play her that way. A lesser work would have turned her into a twinkly old rogue; McCarthy’s maintains Israel’s abrasive and misanthropic qualities, and yet underpins them with a certain wry vulnerability: you like her anyway. It’s a shrewd piece of casting, after all, variations on this persona have been McCarthy’s stock-in-trade through dozens of broad comedies, but it’s fascinating to see her adapt this shtick to the demands of a straightforward drama.

The film was shot in six weeks on a limited budget, and although clever use is made of a small cast and limited locations, certain elements betray the smallness of the production. While Israel and Hock dominate, not much room is left for the supporting characters, although Anna Deavere Smith makes the most of her one scene as Israel’s former girlfriend, and Dolly Wells is touching as the naive bookshop owner who tries to connect with the author.

Meanwhile the scale of Israel’s fraud is slightly underplayed – in real-life she knocked up around 400 forgeries and her theft of genuine works from library archives was much more extensive. This explains the FBI’s subsequent involvement, which seems like overkill in the film – and was she really so foolish as to to only ever rinse the same two or three bookshops?

Nevertheless these are minor gripes. Can You Ever Forgive Me is a warm, smart, bleakly funny work and also, with its lovingly photographed shots of the Manhattan skyline and the interiors of its surviving bookstores, a (genuine) love letter to New York. One of those films-they-just-don’t-make-anymore that they do occasionally still make.