Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a love letter to a bygone Manhattan. Not the glitzy, ritzy Manhattan that we imagine from the 1930s and 1940s, but the gritty, grimy Manhattan of the 1970s and 1980s. It was a time when artists could still live in Manhattan as long as they were willing to be miserable and subsist on rent-controlled studio apartments, cheap drinks and used books bought from street vendors.
You know, the glory days.
Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a misanthropic writer who has had some success as a celebrity biographer, is utterly at home in this dingy world. But when the movie starts, she’s middle-aged, struggling to pay the rent, and has burned nearly every bridge in the New York literary community. Invited to a party by her long-suffering agent (Jane Curtin), Lee stays long enough to eat some free food and steal somebody’s coat before heading out into the night.
Lee ends up turning to an unlikely avenue to rekindle her writing career — literary forgery. Based on a true story, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” combines elements of a caper thriller, smart New York comedy and sobering drama, with a revelatory performance by McCarthy as the delightfully dyspeptic Israel.
Based on her book of the same name, the movie shows how Lee backs into the world of crime step by step. When she discovers a letter by Fanny Brice tucked away into an old library book while doing research, she pockets it and sells it, discovering that there’s a collector’s market for such letters. She learns that the more entertaining the letter, often the higher price. So when she finds another one, she adds a witty postscript of her own and is able to bump up the take.
From there, it’s not long before Lee is forging entire letters herself, typing up witty missives in the voice of Dorothy Parker or Noel Coward. As a biographer, she knows these famous people and their voices inside and out. As she says, “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!”
As her scam expands, she enlists a confederate, a debonair grifter named Jack Hock, played in an wildly entertaining performance by Richard E. Grant. With his dazzling white teeth and gift for bawdy anecdotes, Jack is an instant charmer, even as we wonder if literally anything he’s saying is true. Jack and Lee bond over their simultaneous disdain and envy for the New York intelligentsia who ostracized them, and there’s a sense of retribution in how easily they’re able to fool those highbrows with their forged letters.
As she did with ‘70s San Francisco in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Heller immerses the film in every aspect of its setting, keen not just to the physical details of this time and place but the psychological details of what it’s like to live there. Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely & Amazing”) and Jeff Whitty have crafted a screenplay that’s full of memorable characters and great lines, but always grounded in reality. The movie is crammed with rich supporting performances, including Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s husband) as a sleazy collector and Dolly Wells as a used bookstore owner who, drawn to Lee, reaches out for friendship and perhaps more.
And Lee can’t bring herself to reach back. As a comic actress, McCarthy is naturally inclined to try and please the audience, but she dials down that impulse to play Lee. It's such a beautiful, well-rounded performance of a smart, acerbic woman who deep down is crippled by self-loathing and fear. Lee immerses herself in biographies because she’s terrified of revealing her real self to others. Shuffling around town in clothes that were fashionable when she bought them 20 years earlier, back when she showed promise and potential, she’s a nearly forgotten shell of her old self.
Becoming a forger at least gives her a chance at getting back some of that acclaim — even if it’s hidden behind the name of someone else. For such a closed-off woman like her, getting caught may end up being the best thing to happen to her.