I have to say, I never got sucked into identifying with criminals like Henry Hill and Tony Montana. I knew drugs and murder were bad so as entertaining as their stories were, I never felt bad for them when it came crashing down. Lee Israel at her worst only defrauded some pretentious art collectors so I’m not too torn up about her story.
When author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) sells a letter a celebrity wrote her, and then another she found in an archive, she realizes the collector’s market is big business. So she starts forging letters to make a living.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? shows us how Israel solves problems like copying authors’ signatures. She scouts shady dealers who will be less discerning and sets up a bank of typewriters for each author.
There’s a letter writing montage and we see her other tricks to simulate weathering. The scam gets harder and harder as she slips up and gets too much attention.
You can feel the escalation. This will eventually close in and she’ll run out of avenues to exploit, but not before she adds grand theft to her fraud.
Director Marielle Heller gives Can You Ever Forgive Me? the energy of a crime caper. It’s more Ocean’s 11 than Goodfellas with the montages and the banter between Israel and her friend/fence Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant).
It’s mostly filmed in dim apartments, book stores and restaurants. There’s one hotel room that is also dim. It seems to capture the lifestyle of getting so wrapped up in your work you don’t notice that it’s dark.
McCarthy and Grant have chemistry and each give profound individual performances. Both Israel and Hock balance a sadness with the charismatic wall they put up and the actors show us both.
Lee Israel is no longer with us she may yet become a legend thanks to this movie. At least Can You Ever Forgive Me? is so engrossing that I am tempted to read her memoir for even more details about her scam.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not playing in theaters.