Title: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Crime
Director: Marielle Heller
Screenwriters: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
Music: Nate Heller
Cinematography: Brandon Trost
Editor: Anne McCabe
Richard E. Grant
Anna Deavere Smith
Brandon Scott Jones
Marc Evan Jackson
Justin Vivian Bond
Nicole Holofcener’s pet project for years (who was set to direct it with Julianne Moore and Chris O’Dowd heading the cast), the final fruition of a biopic about New York biographer-turned-literature-forger Lee Israel (1939-2014) shifts its director chair to her fellow female director Marielle Heller, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? becomes the follow-up of her Sundance darling debut feature THE DIARY OF A TEENAGE GIRL (2015), with Holofcener and Jeff Whitty taking the writing credits, Melissa McCarthy starring as Israel and Richard E. Grant as her partner-in-crime Jack Hock (all received their Oscar nominations except Heller).
Scarcely there is anything exciting in Israel’s criminal peccadillo (apart from a tense letter-purloining episode inside the library of Yale University), who forges letters written by deceased celebrities (from Fanny Brice, Noël Coward to Dolly Parker, and the key is to fake their signatures, that’s when an Xerox machine comes quite handy if you have a pair of deft, steady hands), often inputting her own wits into the contents to raise the appeal, then sells them to antique bookshop owners to earn fast cash, yet, it is a fiendishly ingenious idea, because as long as these memorabilia can attract potential collectors, most of these buyers don’t give a toss about its authenticity, but there is also a catch, sometimes, it is difficult to fool a connoisseur who pays handsomely for their collection, also, you cannot sell too many items without rousing suspicion (that “avuncular” slip-up is really embarrassing).
From the start, in the early 1990s, 51-year-old Lee is dead strapped, fired from her wage labor, once a New York best seller, her upcoming biography about Fanny Brice cannot secure an advance, living alone in her cluttered apartment with a long-in-the-tooth cat, her misery should arouse sympathy but any commiseration dissipates vanishingly whenever she talks. A curmudgeon who unabashedly professes that she likes cats far more than her own kind (and later duly proves that with her action), and apparently has no family or friends, Lee belongs to that rarified group of movie protagonists who is not equipped with any modicum of charisma, but that doesn’t make her less human, conversely, among others, McCarthy’s vastly lived-in performance makes every aspect of her humanity coruscate and bubbling with intensity and veracity, we might not want to meet a character like her, but nonetheless, she is there, indomitably represents the unglamorous, unsympathetic side of ordinary beings which narrative cinema often intends to overlook.
The friendship between Lee and Jack, gels naturally from their common propensity of libations. But sex is definitely off the table because of their similar queer orientations, Jack, a small-time drug dealer who seems to sleep rough without a permanent residence, much balances off Lee’s cynical nature with his unapologetic flamboyance, and Grant has a whale of a time in inhabiting his idiotic, happy-go-lucky persona to the hilt, even in the final reveal of his impending fate, Jack is Jack, nothing sentimental or phony is doctored into their tenuous, but unalloyed bond chiefly borne out of a mutual necessity, once that phrase passes, Holofcener and Whitty script makes sure nothing wishy-washy remains.
Many a supporting female performance scintillates with their own strength, Dolly Wells as Anna, one of the bookshop owners, is extremely eloquent in conveying the trickiest part to elicit a tangible romantic feeling towards a dumpy Lee because she peers through her prickly carapace and intuits something tender underneath, but their romance is better not ignited (which Lee snuffs it roundly), as not everyone in real life is prone to act against one’s best judgement. Jane Curtin simply kills it as Lee’s pragmatic agent Marjorie, who does not mince words to pinpoint Lee’s problems with sharp asperity, and Anna Deavere Smith, appears only in one scene as Lee’s ex-lover Elaine, totally shatters our expectation of a comforting figure when Lee seeks out her help, instead, she rams home her mixed feeling of bitterness, weariness and insouciance that persuasively speaks volumes of why their relationship has fallen through.
Carving out an engrossing narrative and teasing out compelling performances out of an assortment of un-cinematic elements, Heller’s CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? not just ushers in a new era of female filmmakers strenuously and felicitously tackling thorny issues like their male counterparts, but also brings a new form of character study to the mainstream audience, if we don’t want other people’s sympathy in real life, likewise, cinema needn’t desperately bank on compassion-inducing characters to make for a rewarding viewing experience, as this film beautifully attests, for what it is worth, humanity is a many-faceted creature.