Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a caper with a deeper meaning
As a true crime film, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is an effective telling of how struggling writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), turned to forging letters from famous people like Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and others to pay her rent. The story of the film is told in a relatively straightforward style, with Lee’s partner-in-crime, Jack (Richard E. Grant) providing a mischievous Artful Dodger edge to Lee’s crimes. When I first saw the film, I found it entertaining enough, but the more I sat with it, the more I found things to like about it. There’s a quiet excellence to everything in the film, and its strengths far outpace its flaws. In some ways, the telling of Israel’s story in a Mid-Budget Movie for Adults is a victory in itself, though it would be all to easy to dismiss it as too much fluff.
On first glance, the film is a fun little criminal escapade with the character who seems almost too acerbic to exist at the center of it. While Melissa McCarthy is always charming, I was a bit disappointed that her performance as Israel isn’t that far off from her overtly comedic roles. Israel is sarcastic, brash, and stubborn, which is well inside McCarthy’s wheelhouse. She does it wonderfully and is able to have her characters remain likable, so it is also necessary for the film to function. While some of this results in moments of comedy, director Marielle Heller also allows us to see very clearly that this is a mask Israel wears, and the pain on McCarthy’s face is there for a split second after she walks away from another moment where she defends herself with her projected toughness.
The machinations of Israel’s scheme are certainly fun, and her selling to different buyers allows for some fun character performances. However, the most interesting aspects of the film are just under the surface. Why Israel, who had never before turned to crime or falsifying information, ends up forging: it is an act of desperation and survival. This in turn means the film has a lot to say about what success looks like for a writer, as well as how female creators and women-centric topics are devalued in the world of publishing.
At the beginning of the film, Israel is in a bad financial situation. Her apartment is a disaster, she is behind on rent, and this is exacerbated because she is unable to get an advance for her biography on legendary comedienne Fanny Brice. Israel’s career is beyond decline and heading toward obscurity. Her literary agent (Jane Curtain) admonishes her, saying that Brice isn’t a subject where she can even get Israel an advance. And in return, Israel rants about Tom Clancy and his success writing politically retrograde male wish fulfillment. I think Israel has a point, and I say that as someone who has read quite a few Clancy novels and zero books on Fanny Brice.
However, Israel’s agent gives credit to Clancy insofar as he is willing to be a public figure as an author and play the game of press and public relations (and to be fair, she always answers the phone for Nora Ephron). And while she may have a point, this is also part of Israel’s problem.
Lee Israel is also an introvert in the extreme who craves privacy, even from her closest friends. Not only does she prefer the company of her cat, but she is the kind of writer who wishes only to immerse herself in her research and let her subject speak through her words. She doesn’t seek to build a cult of personality, writing the kind of books that will build a fan base regardless of quality. She doesn’t aim to become a brand, so there’s no way she will ever spin off something like Tom Clancy’s Net Force, Created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik and Written by Steve Perry (that’s the real title and credit of that book).
Israel’s aim seems to be immortalizing figures–especially women–by bringing her subjects to life for her audience. So much conventional wisdom around success is about doing the quality work and the success/audience will naturally follow. But we also know that is only true in rare cases. Capitalism requires advertising, publicists, and personality.
How much of Israel’s lack of success is because she won’t appear on Larry King so that middle-aged Midwestern dads’ buy her Fanny Brice biography? Or because the deck was stacked against her from the beginning? It doesn’t take a yarn wall to see the wheels of capitalism, patriarchy, and anti-introvert biases working in tandem against Israel. And not just because she is a female writer, but she also exclusively wants to write about other women, even though women read more than men. Ideally, many of us feel that there ought to be a middle ground, or even a “one for them, one more for me” mentality.” But that isn’t always realistic.
The film does a lot to capture the divide between Israel’s interests and what the market desires in terms of product. It is exactly why she eventually turns to deceit in order to pay her rent; she is unwilling or unable to compromise. And rather than paint her as a tragic figure unwilling to perform for her supper, Heller’s film shows her as a hero defiant. And her writing is appreciated, even if it has to be attributed to more well-known writers.
These issues are woven through Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which makes the film an interesting examination of artists out of step with sales as well as a thoroughly fun and entertaining caper. Now I just need to read one of her books. And maybe one of Dorothy Parker’s too.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens in Philly theaters today.