In CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?, Melissa McCarthy (CHARLIE’S ANGELS) plays Lee Israel, a writer (this is based on her memoir) who’s maybe hit a rough patch. She’s had a book on the New York Times bestseller list, which she figures has gotta be worth something, but now her agent (Jane Curtin, CONEHEADS) tries to avoid her and has no interest in her planned Fannie Brice biography.
Lee gets fired from her day-going-into-late-night publishing industry job for being an asshole and for drinking, two of her defining characteristics. But her only friend – her cat – is sick, the vet won’t help until she pays her previous bills, and the used bookstore doesn’t want what she’s offering any more than the magazine editors want what she’s pitching.
So it starts in desperation. She figures out she can get money by selling a nice letter that Katharine Hepburn sent to Lee to thank her for a profile she wrote. Next she swipes a Fannie Brice letter from a research archive and tries to sell that, but the content is bland, so nobody offers her much. In a fit of frustration or smart-assed boldness she pops the letter in her typewriter and adds a witty postscript. And sure enough when she tries to sell it that raises its value.
And then from historical punch-up she moves to straight up forgery, and there it is. All the sudden she’s a professional fraudster writing and selling fake correspondence from Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and others. She studies their writing styles, buys different vintage typewriters, finds their real signatures and traces them using her TV as a lightboard.
I went in knowing nothing about this movie, and when I could sense a literary scandal approaching I was afraid it would be plagiarism. Here in the world of online critics that comes up occasionally, and I find it completely befuddling. Obviously stealing someone’s work is a shitty thing to do to them, but it’s nothing new that there are assholes who treat people badly. The part that baffles me is just being a writer and being willing to pass on stolen thoughts as your own. In my mind the only reason to write is because you have a passion for it, a need to get those things out of your head and communicate them to others. If that’s not something you have then congratulations, you’re free, you don’t have to do this!
I guess we can only assume that plagiarists are the ones who, unlike me, figured out how to make it their job. So they’re not really writing, they’re just making the donuts, and they found a shortcut to get through the shift.
(No offense to donuts, it’s just a saying. I have great respect for donuts and donut-makers.)
So in a way it’s a relief that Lee’s scam is the opposite. Instead of taking credit for someone else’s work, she’s giving someone else credit for her work. And she’s throwing herself into the work with passion. She’s trying to pass herself off as these legends for the money but also as a matter of pride, of proving her worth, even if only to herself.
At the same time, I have a hard time watching a protagonist participating in this type of dishonesty. That’s my version of being a scaredy cat watching a horror movie. The lies tie my stomach into knots. I’m so nervous about her being caught, being shamed, but mostly about her disappointing people. It’s easier to take her lying to some of her snottier clients, but man, it’s painful to watch her deceive Anna (Dolly Wells, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES), the nice bookstore owner who’s a genuine fan of Lee’s books and articles and shares her passion for many of the subjects of the fake letters. When Anna tries to test the waters for taking the relationship further Lee coldly shuts her down, and it seems like such a missed opportunity. Maybe it’s out of guilt, or not wanting things to be even harder when they eventually come crashing down. But I’m thinking Lee, what are you doing, this lady is great!
But it seems like the only person Lee can really get close to is someone who’s as much of a piece of shit as she is, and that’s Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, WARLOCK, HUDSON HAWK, GARFIELD: A TAIL OF TWO KITTIES), a charming and flamboyant (yes, as in gay) asshole she befriends in a bar. Their friendship is built on bad attitudes, dark humor and shared mischief, eventually including being an accomplice in selling the letters. And there’s something very sweet about the way they share their misery and are able to love each other at their worst.
Skip this and the next paragraph to avoid a bit of a SPOILER, but I want to mention my favorite moment in the movie. We’ve seen Lee’s reclusive life in her apartment and obviously it’s kind of scummy because she has this fly problem she’s been complaining to the landlord about. But after she starts getting money and is back in the landlord’s good graces he sends a plumber up with her and Jack to check something and when they go in the plumber and Jack are so disgusted by the smell they go running out of there like they might throw up. It’s kind of a plot twist, or a reveal, that all this time she wasn’t just reclusive, she is living in a horrific situation with cat shit everywhere, and apparently this has been going on so long she didn’t know they’d react that way.
But then – this is why I like it so much, despite how sad that is – Jack then knocks on the door, says he’s sorry, swears that he doesn’t mind. And then he comes in and really does spend his day helping her clean out the shit. A powerful gesture of real friendship.
Another odd little moment I like is when Lee is waiting for Jack in a bar, and she sits having a drink watching a draq queen lounge singer (Justin Vivian Bond, SHORTBUS). Lee seems to get lost in the song, and she actually smiles. One of the few times when she seems happy.
The book was initially adapted by Jeff Whitty (writer of the musical Avenue Q.), then rewritten by Nicole Holofcener (WALKING AND TALKING, LOVELY & AMAZING, FRIENDS WITH MONEY, ENOUGH SAID) to direct, but when her star Julianne Moore dropped out right before they were supposed to film she decided to hand it off to her Sundance protege Marielle Heller (THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL – also an actress in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES), who reportedly shifted the focus to the friendship between Lee and Jack. Good idea.
Despite the stress that watching Lee’s crime spree caused in my gut, it’s more of a warm feeling that has stuck with me for weeks since seeing it. I don’t know who in her life should or shouldn’t forgive her, but it’s nice to have a movie that doesn’t judge anybody’s failures.