LEE ISRAEL is a once famous biographer who is struggling to sell her new book, a biography of Fanny Brice. When bills pile up she looks for things to sell. She has several letters from different celebrities and authors, and she can get a decent price for them.
When they run out, she begins to forge letters. When her only friend, and drinking buddy, Jack Hock eggs her on, the letters become more outlandish and fetch bigger prices. Lee is enjoying her new found self worth. She enjoys the con of writing in the styles of Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker and being told they could not possibly be fake. However she eventually she comes to the attention of the FBI.
Melissa Macarthy as Lee is genuinely great. I’m not surprised to see this. She is nearly always the best thing in whatever she is in, but the movies themselves are not always great. Lee is unlikeable but it is a real testament to McCarthy that she still manages to make her sympathetic. One exchange with a book seller looks as if it could be turning into a friendship, or even something more, but with her con in motion, Lee withdraws and purposefully offends the woman. Yet there is a resignation in her face when she withdraws that is just heartbreaking.
'Lee phoning her agent pretending to be Nora Ephron to get her to take the call feels like something Nora Ephron would write'
Richard E Grant (Jack ) is more than a little reminiscent of his role as Withnail in Withnail And I. It really feels like it could be a sequel. Chris O’Dowd was originally to have played Jack which is surprising as the part seems written for Grant.
Can You Ever Forgive Me is a brilliant depiction of loneliness, of two people left behind. In one scene Jack quips a mutual friend has died, then corrects himself, she had kids and moved to the suburbs. Same thing he says. It is also important to notice the time period and location this movie is set in - New York in the early 1990s. The AIDs crisis is in full swing, Lee and Jack are two gay people surrounded by death in a world that does not have a place for them. They are self-harming in ways other than drinking (which they do constantly ) Jack is all but homeless and Lee’s apartment is so smelly the janitor will not go in.
That said there are plenty of laughs. Lee phoning her agent pretending to be Nora Ephron to get her to take the call feels like something Nora Ephron would write. It is a film that refrains from pity, and instead tries to understand its characters. Something that say, Beautiful Boy, a film I reviewed recently could not do.