Can You Ever Forgive Me? takes place in 1980s New York City, and shares the true story of Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a well-known American biographer and forger whose unbelievable tale of deception offers insight into society’s obsession with celebrity and authenticity.
We meet Lee Israel after she’s spent decades composing profiles on successful women such as Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead. The once famous author is now down on her luck, as her new book about makeup empire queen Estée Lauder has flunked in bookstores, quickly tossed into the 75% off sales bin.
Desperate to speak with her agent (Jane Curtin) about new creative ideas, Lee’s life spirals out of control when she realizes the books she writes are no longer in demand. While Lee has spent her career hiding behind the bold faced names she has immortalized in biographies, her aggressive personality and unprofessional appearance have made capitalizing on her fame challenging.
Lee hits rock bottom after a spending the day drinking Scotch and Soda’s at her local dive bar. We follow her as she waddles through her cramped apartment, dirty dishes piled high, dead flies on her pillow, and a gruesome collection of cat droppings hiding under her bed.
Director Marielle Heller spins a great story, forcing the audience to be confronted by Lee’s dark side (alcoholism, hoarding habits, outbursts of profanity) while honestly sharing the great lengths someone will go to survive when falling on desperate times.
Melissa McCarthy brilliantly embodies Lee’s “middle aged frumpy cat lady,” but the heart of the story is her tender friendship with an old acquaintance (Richard E. Grant), a gay man who becomes her regular day drinking buddy. Along the way we learn that Lee is a lesbian, still caught up in a love affair that soured, forcing her to lament, “I have a hard time trusting people.”
Feeling completely overwhelmed by her dead-end publishing prospects, months of rent that haven’t been paid, and a house cat that requires expensive prescription medication, Lee puts her stellar writing abilities to good use by tapping into the underground market of celebrity keepsakes. We watch as Lee scours Manhattan’s collectible markets and bookstores, realizing quickly that if she forges fake letters from famous literary heroes she can pay a months rent with just one mischievously typed note.
McCarthy and Grant’s characters are perhaps Hollywood’s most unlikely gay duo but it’s their polarizing personas that make their relationship so believable. Like most doomed-to-fail capers, Lee and her gay partner-in-crime get too comfortable with their simple scheme. Once alerted that the FBI are onto her, Lee’s newfound upbeat life seems to be on the brink of a blow up. In the end, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a stellar study on commodification, legitimacy, and the struggle to simply be a woman in the world.