Melissa McCarthy plays writer-turned-forger Lee Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a biopic based on Israel’s memoir. This is McCarthy’s first prominent dramatic role, and she proves without a doubt that she can take on more serious material without losing the quirky charm typical of her comedic characters. Israel was a notoriously difficult personality, and McCarthy succeeds in playing on Israel’s gruff, take-no-prisoners attitude for laughs while also humanizing the character with glimpses of vulnerability.
The audience is introduced to Israel at a low point in her life. Fired from her job, shunned by her publisher, and faced with eviction and the sudden illness of the only living thing she seems to give a damn about—her cat Jersey—Israel resorts to selling a treasured letter from Katharine Hepburn. This turns out to be more lucrative than she expected, and when she finds a letter from another celebrity in a library, she doesn’t hesitate to sell it, although she doesn’t receive as much as she hoped. The content is a little dull, the dealer tells her. From there it’s remarkably easy for Israel to cross the line from shady to full-on illegal. If reality isn’t exciting enough, why not embellish it a little?
There’s certainly not much excitement to be found in Israel’s world. The film is careful not to glamorize the writer’s crimes, instead portraying the full extent of her bleak reality: ugly sweater vests, cat poop under the bed, and empty bars at 5 p.m. The color scheme is composed of drab, washed-out neutrals. Israel is prickly and consciously avoids most human interaction, and perhaps as a way to reflect her perspective and justify her reclusiveness, the New York City she inhabits is populated by cold, unfriendly strangers.
The appearance of Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) is a welcome change from the doom and gloom. Drawn together by alcohol and their yearning for the good old days, an unlikely friendship grows between the two barflies. The dynamic between the flamboyant, chatty Hock and obstinate, abrasive Israel lends much-needed comic relief to a story that sometimes gets bogged down by Israel’s banal, depressing routines. Hock ricochets into Israel’s life, followed by much younger men and a slightly concerning coke-dealing gig, but it’s genuinely relieving to see Israel make a connection with another human being. When word gets out that Israel’s letters aren’t the real deal, she lets Hock in on the gig. His smooth-talking demeanor works like a charm on the antiques dealers of the city, and he manages to sell the fake letters for much more than Israel is able to.
Israel’s eventual downfall comes as no surprise, but the lack of satisfying character development as a result of it is. While it’s admirable that the film does its best to mirror reality, in this case, some creative liberties should have been taken. The real Israel remained largely unrepentant for her crimes to the very end, but a transformation on the part of McCarthy’s Israel would have created a stronger character arc. Instead, all we get is an unremarkable letter to the judge presiding over the case admitting that she injected the kind of vulnerability into her forged letters that she was never brave enough to display in her own work.
Maybe this is the reason Israel’s career failed. Maybe she belongs in the past, when “people honored the written word,” as she claims. Maybe she’s too honest for people to bear, or maybe if she took a leap of faith and published something that revealed more of herself instead of hiding behind big personalities she would have finally tasted the success that she deserved. Or perhaps that’s all nonsense. The bitter truth might be that Israel never had the talent to make it as a writer in her own right. Tragic hero or self-saboteur? The film leaves it up to the viewer to decide.
Featured Image by Fox Searchlight Pictures