Movie Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)
As the movie opens, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is sitting at her desk at 3 a.m., editing copy (magazine copy, I guess?), with an adult beverage nearby, when several co-workers complain: “You’re not supposed to eat or drink here.” Her response? “Fuck off.” Unfortunately she says this to her boss, and out she goes. She’s walking home in the early morning light, when, in the background, high atop one of Manhattan’s skyscrapers, we see these words lit up in red: NEW YORKER.
Yeah, that’s about the size of it, I thought. You’re struggling, you’ve just got knocked down a rung or two on the ladder, and there it is, in the distance, visible but impossibly out of reach. Winking at you.
Or maybe I was reading myself into this too much?
Bottle in front of me
What surprised me is that Israel wasn’t some struggling writer; she was actually successful. She interviewed Katherine Hepburn in 1967 for Esquire (“Last of the Honest-to-God Ladies”). She wrote three biographies. The movie mentions she’d once been on the New York Times bestseller list but not with what. It was her bio of Broadway columnist and ’50s game show regular Dorothy Kilgallen. That seems fun. She seemed drawn to witty women: Kilgallen, Tallulah Bankhead, Fanny Brice. Her downfall, which the movie obscures, was the next book. Her publisher, Macmillan, tapped her for a warts-and-all bio of cosmetics queen Estee Lauder. Lauder supposedly tried to bribe her to drop the project, or at least the warts, but Israel didn’t. So Lauder came out with her own autobiography first. There went the sales. And Israel’s bio was reamed in the press.
The movie, as I said, obscures this. It implies that she’s just generally awful and no one wants to be around her. In this way, it's trying to be like “Tootsie," but without the joy. She’s Michael Dorsey, her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtain), is George Fields, who has to tell her, “No one will hire you.” Michael’s reaction was to become another person: a woman. Lee’s is to become several of them: dead, hard drinking, literary heavyweights such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. What she’d done with her biographies—hiding herself behind her subjects—she does even more expertly here.
It’s 1991 and she lives in a walkup on the upper west side of Manhattan. Her main companion is her cat—and drink. She owes back rent and money to the vet. She doesn’t even realize how much she’s let herself go.
Despite a resounding lack of interest, she’s still researching her bio on Fanny Brice when, in the library, tucked into the pages of a book, she finds a letter written by Brice. She steals it, tries to sell it, but is only offered $75. It’s just not witty enough. So Israel adds a P.S. that is. The price skyrockets to $400 and she’s off and running—creating such letters out of whole cloth.
Her confidante is all this, and eventually her partner in crime after the feds begin to close in, is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). The scenes between the two of them, laughing at the squares at a mid-day dive bar, are fun. My wife has always wanted to have drinks with Richard Grant, so this movie is almost her wish-fulfillment fantasy.
For me, it just wasn't witty enough. Something was missing. Something specific.
You know who was originally tapped for the role? Julianne Moore. You know what both Moore and McCarthy have in common? They’re not Jewish. You look at a photo of the real Lee Israel, who published her memoir about all this in 2008, and died in 2014, and it’s like looking at Golda Meir. Taking away the Jewish thing is just taking away too much. Not that I can figure out who to cast in McCarthy’s place. Natalie Portman? Gal Gadot? Is Jenny Slate too young? Michaela Watkins too obscure? You need a character actress for the role and no one in Hollywood, apparently not even indie Hollywood, is going to bankroll a movie about literary fraud starring a character actress who’s Jewish.
Yet that’s exactly the movie I want to see. That's my wish-fulfillment fantasy.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” written by both Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and directed by Marielle Heller, isn’t bad. It’s just ... too much the dead end. It’s too drab. It should’ve been livelier. More pretensions should’ve been popped. The dead end, by the way, isn’t just Israel’s world but what the literary world had become by then: overwhelmed by other media; relegated to the margins, and to airless bookshops. Israel’s a woman out of time but doesn’t seem to realize it. Or the movie doesn’t.
I did like her swipes at Nora Ephron, with whom she shared an agent. The movie seems to join in on the tweaking by presenting us with Ephronesque images of Manhattan, and Ephronesque standards on the soundtrack, to accompany this very unromantic story.
Israel’s crimes are mostly victimless. Or the victims are snooty, tight-assed book dealers, so we don’t care. But the victims are also literary heavyweights and history. So we should.
There’s a good scene near the end when Israel sees one of her faux Dorothy Parker letters being sold in the window of a bookshop. It’s now up to $1900. She asks the bookseller how they know the letter is authentic, and he says it comes with a letter of authenticity. She asks if this letter of authenticity has a letter of authenticity, then drops a few hints indicating that the letter is indeed a fraud—hers. The bookseller is scandalized. He goes to the window, looks at the letter, is about to walk away with it. But nah. It’s $1900. Back it goes. Back into history.