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Can You Ever Forgive Me?

“Cinema Stephanie” Blogette Vol. III, No.3 (May 2019)

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (based on a true story)

(U.S.A., 2018, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 106 min, R.; Directed by Marielle Heller)

(Viewed at BFI London Film Festival Oct. 2018 & second time on DVD to review, May 2019)

Note: Available at Amazon to purchase or view.

It’s 1991, 3:30 am in New York City (NYC). A rather haggard and apparently unhappy woman, the insolent and irreverent writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), toils in an office cubicle clearly annoying a co-worker who exclaims “we’re not allowed to eat or drink in here.” Uttering an expletive response overheard by someone in authority Lee is summarily fired. Grumbling as she chugs down her drink (scotch to be sure), dumping the ice in waste bin, she packs up and departs.

Cut to a typical NYC apartment. Dawn is breaking with morning light revealing unpleasant pests, lack of housekeeping indicative of hard times financially and emotionally, iconic pink Princess telephone on the bedroom night stand reflects art director’s finesse. The feline presence of a commanding cat called Jersey connotes a lonely habitat. The dubious scene is set for Can You Ever Forgive Me? tale of a once highly successful writer turned forger and her struggle to survive. It’s early winter, yet sultry mood with the lilting music and lyrics “Thought of You (and couldn’t sleep) Last Night” as opening titles appear and as a prelude to the deceptive story to be revealed. Day becomes night as Lee performs ablutions staring in the bathroom mirror her angst builds. She walks the dusky streets ultimately arriving at a pedantic and pretentious party in the home of her literary agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) and the fun begins. Or is it really fun?

The usually comically cast McCarty portrays the wryly witty “anti-heroine” with verve and defensive vulnerability in a tour de force performance deserving of every accolade garnered, including Academy Award® nomination for Best Actress. She’s a revelation in this dramatic role and one hopes to see more casting of this impressive actress in that context.

Lee appears to have passed her prime and elusive fame, and on the skids owing months in back rent. She cherishes Jersey who is the incentive for her to bring in some bucks when the vet won’t treat the ailing animal until an overdue invoice is paid. Knocking back scotch (sometimes with soda) isn’t really helping, though fuels Lee’s spirit (no pun intended) and how she reconnects with former acquaintance, charming Brit Jack Hock (Richard Grant, duly honored with Oscar® nod for best supporting actor among other well deserved praise) of an afternoon at a local bar. Their inebriated rapport suffices for closest human companionship she’s had in a long time. Theirs is a unique co-dependence that serves them well, then back fires.

Disdained by Marjorie, punctiliously portrayed by Curtin with composed arrogance as she challenges her frustrated client to “….go out there and find another way to earn a living” and equally dismissive “not my job to talk you off the ledge, it’s exhausting” doesn’t evoke Lee’s self-pity so much as anger and an innovative solution to pay her debts. Beginning with selling an authentic handwritten letter from Katharine Hepburn she discovers there is truly a market for autographs and rhetoric penned by literati and celebrities of yore. Her latest book in progress is about funny lady of Ziegfeld Follies Fanny Brice. When doing research about the comedienne she uncovers personal letters from the star tucked in a book that is the inspiration to recreate similar missives. She keeps the letter and embarks on a nefarious and lucrative foray in forgery to propel her to financial solvency and renewed self-esteem.

Lee is impishly lured by her own cleverness, that’s not to be confused with egoism. She’s smart and knows it, though her bitter attitude, caustic humor and anti-social behavior are ultimately detrimental. As is her trust in the charlatan Jack who betrays her succumbing to his hedonistic nature. A potential friendship with one of her “clients” bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells) is disrupted by Lee’s reluctance, if not guilt about her devious actions of deception, that’s sad to observe. Her moment of true vulnerability contacting a former love interest Elaine (Anna Deveare Smith) who rebukes her, is touching and telling. She’s simply shut herself off and out. The action escalates, with tension building as Lee is about to be caught.

“Can you ever forgive me?” is a line Lee apparently invented for Dorothy Parker - author, raconteur and illustrious “member” of the Algonquin Round Table that met daily for a decade in the famed midtown Manhattan Algonquin Hotel (see corresponding story about NYC) enjoying long and liquid (as in libation) lunches espousing witty commentary on current times - in one of the clever letters she created that depicts the legendary wit feigning contrition and entreating atonement for her inebriated behavior. Parker would probably never have apologized and neither would Lee who eventually is forced to own up to her miscreant actions, willing to take the punishment, though avowing she’s not sorry and the forgery possibly her best work. What is apparent is that she is essentially a decent person, with immense talent, undermined by tormented self destructive behavior.

Subsequently Lee made a legitimate comeback with in her last book Can You Ever Forgive Me? a bold if not boisterous account of how she was able to “out scam the scammers” adapted for the film by screenwriters Nicole Holefcener and Jeff Whitty who garnered Oscar®, BAFTA, commendation for the worthy script.

Kudos to Marielle Heller for her adroit direction with tension and pacing punctuated by musical moments including songs that set a melancholy tone and convey the emotion Lee is incapable of expressing. Excellent production values throughout.

If as Dorothy Parker stated: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity” see the movie because you won’t be bored and probably become more curious; and determine if you can as the saying goes forgive, yet not forget.

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