A legend has sprouted about the day Bob Dylan met an aging, ailing Woody Guthrie. “You sound more like me than I do,” was the elder bard’s supposed summation of his successor. It’s entirely possible that if Lee Israel could’ve met the great gallery of writers she impersonated, they might’ve offered her the same backhanded compliment. Indeed, her skill at mimicking the idiomatic eccentricities of an expanse of literary personalities was so strong that even experts were easily duped. Can You Ever Forgive Me is one of those affectionately kooky dramas that could only be plucked from real-life events. Lee Israel’s creative struggle raged on two fronts: Her prickly personality kept industry gatekeepers at Heisman-length, while her artistic snobbery denied Lee the chance to find an audience for her unique voice. Simply and brilliantly, she solved both problems by learning to sound like someone else.
It’s the early 90s, and Lee (Melissa McCarthy) has tasted a tablespoon’s worth of bestselling success. She makes the mistake of assuming this fleeting fame entitles her to broad creative leverage and unlimited license to inflict her curmudgeonly personality anyone who attempts to get close. Lee spends her abundant free time hunkered in dive bars, moping over the crackling ice cubes in a Scotch glass. In between these slurring stupors, she toils on a biography of Fanny Brice, a stubbornly esoteric pursuit that guarantees income will be in short supply. “No one wants to read Lee Israel!” Her agent (Jane Curtain) snaps tersely. In desperate want of rent and groceries, Lee makes a gentle foray into forgery.
At first, Lee sticks to pilfering archives that hold the letters of famous authors. Unfortunately, collectors dismiss these papers as “too bland.” This motivates Lee to up her game, typing fake letters on behalf of Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, and many others. She dresses up their faux correspondence with colorful, often explicit, embellishments. Unsurprisingly, the snotty shopkeepers regard her forgeries with giddy rejoicing: The text is so alive, so acerbic–it could only be Noël Coward! Money and validation start flowing in, making Lee grow even bolder.
Along this path of short-term satisfaction and long-term annihilation, Lee gains the most unexpected baggage one could imagine for her: A friend. Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) is an affable, flamboyant sot who gives Lee an ever-ready drinking buddy and minimal judgment. Meanwhile, she has the opportunity to forge a real relationship with Anna (Dolly Wells), a mousy storeowner who fangirls over Lee’s actual writing. As with all her other human interaction, Lee must decide whether or not to let Anna scale the stonemasonry she’s built around herself.
As Lee, McCarthy’s performance is a masterpiece of muted indignation. Her short fuse always has a lit match nearby, ready to dynamite any bridges she might have built. Grant plays Jack as lovable, broken, and doomed–a brilliant bulb destined to flicker out too soon. Wells is all quiet vulnerability as a guileless woman wounded by letting herself care too much about Lee. Can You Ever Forgive Me? draws much of its dramatic power from actors who don’t so much portray their characters as effortlessly inhabit them.
The saying goes that “good artists borrow and great artists steal.” This movie depicts a woman who took that observation to another level. Lee Israel borrowed the voice of great writers in order to steal a few quick bucks for herself. “I was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker ever was!” Lee notes proudly. Can You Ever Forgive Me? uses wry humor and intelligent observation to humanize its cranky subject. Like all great character studies, it slowly brings us to sympathize with, and, even more incredibly, see a little of ourselves in Lee Israel. This is one of the best films of the year.