FILM REVIEW – CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? With Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Anna Deavere Smith, Jane Curtin. Written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Directed by Marielle Heller. Rated R for language including some sexual references and brief drug use. 106 minutes.
The film takes its title from a famous letter by Dorothy Parker, one in which the hard-drinking, acid-tongued author speculated that she might save time apologizing for feelings trampled upon during her frequent blackouts by going around New York City distributing pre-printed cards that ask CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
The letter is classic Dorothy Parker. It’s also a hoax — one of over 400 phony missives meticulously forged in the early 1990s by the late Lee Israel, a down-on-her luck non-fiction writer turned literary trickster and now the subject of director Marielle Heller’s warmly acerbic and altogether wonderful new picture. Played to boisterous, boozebag perfection by Melissa McCarthy, Lee’s a loudmouthed, lonely alcoholic whose days on the New York Times bestseller list are long in the rearview mirror. Saddled with a sick cat, a filthy apartment she can no longer afford and a skill set that’s fallen far out of fashion, our heroine soon finds herself punching up the one-liners on a few memorabilia items before quickly graduating to full-blown fraud.
Her partner in crime is Jack Hock, a flamboyant bon vivant nearing the end of the line and played with glorious, clay-footed bravado by Richard E. Grant. This blotto, foppish dandy with scuffed shoes can’t help but call to mind Grant’s legendary turn thirty years ago as one of cinema’s most quotable drunkards in Bruce Robinson’s great “Withnail & I.” Jack’s a sort of Withnail in winter, fully aware that the party ended years ago but still dancing as fast as he can.
McCarthy and Grant have a brilliantly bitchy chemistry, blasting each other with filthy zingers while drinking away afternoons in the cozy gay bars of a pre-Giuliani Manhattan that’s just beginning to slip out of reach for these kind of misfits. Heller has an extraordinary eye for detail — you can practically smell the must in these antiquarian bookshops, as well as the less-pleasant feline aromas of Lee’s cluttered apartment. This is also one of the most honest films I’ve ever seen about how common it is for someone to be a quote-unquote successful writer while not doing well financially at all.
There’s a warm blanket of melancholy to these wintry New York City settings, and “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” more than once reminded me of Curtis Hanson’s classic “Wonder Boys,” which featured similarly snowbound literary has-beens on benders with ruefully funny results. The particulars of Israel’s scheme never do quite take center stage, the film is too interested in these characters to become a true-crime procedural.
Instead, the sneaky screenplay — co-written the great Nicole Holofcener of “Walking and Talking” and “Enough Said” — lands on Lee’s unexpected swelling of pride in her work. Her fake letters are more convincing than a lot of real ones. She’s well-researched enough to approximate the author’s voices, and it’s unsurprisingly easy for her slip into a lot of these hard-drinking, oversized and often queer sensibilities. This is the best writing Lee’s ever done, and the only person she can tell is Jack.
It’s these two that’ll stay with you long after the lights come up — the potty-mouthed banter bouncing back and forth between McCarthy and Grant as they stagger through a disappearing New York, leaning on each other the way only the desperately lonely can. They’re like the Joe Buck and Ratso Rizzo of used bookstores and parties full of old ladies and free shrimp. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a very small, extremely specific movie about a rarefied milieu, yet the emotions it conjures are huge and universal. I didn’t want it to end.•••
Over the past nineteen years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene, Time Out New York and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.