Can You Ever Forgive Me? January 31, 2019
Richard E. Grant
Anna Deavere Smith
1 Hr., 47 Mins.
n a short message sent to a man named Joshua, the writer Dorothy Parker asks for forgiveness. And pre-forgiveness, sort of. Parker’s fairly certain that, the night before, while she was raving drunk, she probably said some awful things, and wants Joshua to know that whatever she said, she’s sorry she said it. Parker knows herself, however, and is well aware that a woman like herself is likely to again say something she regrets while sloshed. “To
save me this kind of exertion in the future,” she wrote. “I am thinking of having little letters runoff saying, ‘Can you ever forgive me? Dorothy.’” Her signature? “Can you ever forgive me? Dorothy.” Clever!
Psych. This missive, discovered years later, may live up to Parker's style, but she isn’t responsible for it. It was Lee Israel, the journalist and author turned literary forger, who sat behind her typewriter and cooked up the thing. A better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker, Israel might say. We might be inclined to agree.
At the time Israel wrote the letter — around 1992 — she was between a rock and a hard place. Though she had spent the last couple of decades toiling away as a successful freelancer — her best-known works include an Esquire profile of Katharine Hepburn and a biography about the journalist and television personality Dorothy Kilgallen — her writing career was essentially over by that year. Alcoholism, thinly veiled misanthropy, and depression were partly responsible for getting her there. She had basically no real way to make money.
As legend has it, Israel first began scribing fake letters as a way to make ends meet. At first, it started almost innocently — attaching a colorful P.S. to an epistle by Noël Coward and seeing what would happen. What ended up happening, though, was that the message was believed — and garnered Israel a sizable payout — which led to more forgeries. Impersonation, rather incidentally, became a career. By the time Israel was caught more than a year after her inaugural crime, she had hammered out almost 400 supposedly rare letters. A memoir detailing her offenses, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, was eventually published, in 2008.
Last year, the autobiography was adapted for the screen by co-screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and the director Marielle Heller. Melissa McCarthy, natural-faced and beset with a lightly greyed, anonymous-looking rat-brown bob, headlines as Israel; Richard E. Grant, mischievous and funny, co-stars as a former acquaintance named Jack Hock whom Israel re-connects with and uses as a quasi-partner in crime.
A funny thing that one of 2018’s great films is also one of its most uncomplicated. Can You Ever Forgive Me? engages with a done-to-death crime-movie structure — clever con continues on with their misdemeanors (perhaps getting unwisely confident somewhere in the middle of their long misadventure) until they get caught. But that the movie is rather circuitous when we’re talking about narrative isn’t much a setback. Though this is foundationally a true-crime almost-thriller, what makes Can You Ever Forgive Me? so melodious — which is not to say that it’s sweet — are its characterizations and accompanying performances.
Holofcener and Whitty do a terrific job hashing out who these people might have been, and why they were persuaded to do something so risky and duplicitous. As the film opens, Israel is behind on her rent; her elderly cat is sick. We learn that she has no friends, no loved ones — anyone who’s ever gotten close to her, she’s pushed away, and anyone who’s tried, she’s barked at. Her career is at a standstill. No one is interested in her proposed biography of the vaudevillian Fanny Brice, and her name no longer holds the sort of credence that could get her a worthwhile magazine piece. Hock is homeless and commits pathetic little crimes to get any place in his life; he’s a young street leech who happens to be middle-aged. There is a sense of: what else are they going to do with themselves? When forging proves itself an almost disconcertingly easy and profitable pastime, it’s suddenly harder than ever to try to adhere to an ethical lifestyle.
McCarthy and Grant get these people just right. McCarthy, in a rare predominantly dramatic turn, makes for an equally likable and pitiful cynic; Grant is meticulous as the lifelong punk always looking for a cheap thrill. The actors have wonderful chemistry, to boot. Their friendship is tuneful, but it’s melancholic, too, not least because both are lonerish outsiders. It’s likely that neither person has ever opened up to someone this extensively. Yet, at the same time, they cannot entirely trust each other — the Grant character, after all, has been going through the motions of shady dealings for years.
There are also some excellent walk-ons: Jane Curtin is an ever-cutting spectacle as Israel’s acerbic and tough agent; Dolly Wells is poignant as a mark who is both a big fan of Israel’s work and a potential love interest; Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband, is perfectly snaky as a bookstore owner who figures out Israel’s scheme early on and attempts to blackmail her.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? doesn’t romanticize the central crime, but it doesn’t condemn its protagonists, either. It’s becomingly contradictory — a character study that efficiently gives us the opportunity to simultaneously love and be uncertain of its protagonists. A welcome bit of incongruity in a biopic, if you ask me. A-