There is a certain kind of movie that makes thrilling the worst kinds of behavior. First you have to buy into airtight characterizations and a hermetically sealed world where the rules ought not apply. And then you have to get in touch with your naughty side. Hello there. Long time no see.
The new American independent film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” handles the hermetically sealed world quite well. This Greenwich Village of the very early nineties is populated by a long series of bookish types stationed in a succession of independent bookstores who sometimes traffic in precious signed letters by authors and cult figures of years past. What a rare treat to drop in on these kooks. It’s white nonsense, to be sure, but the benevolent type. They are all polite and stylish and they barely speak above a whisper. Among them wanders Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, the proverbial slaughter for these literary lambs.
Lee Israel is a literary biographer of note, not quite recovering from a string of flops. Her recent large press biography of Estée Lauder is a big paper turkey that makes her the cringiest kind of exile: a publishing laughing stock. She’s behind on her rent, does not anticipate royalties, and is unable to pay the double digit veterinary bill for her beloved cat. And one day, while at the library researching her Fanny Brice biography - for which her agent refuses to seek a buyer - Lee opens up a volume to find an old Fanny Brice letter. She goes a local bookstore, sees if it might meet with interest, and sells it for a small, tidy sum. More, she is told, could be made from a juicier, more personal letter. A light bulb goes off. You know where this is going.
Crime pays for Lee Israel. What fun there is in this film can be found in Lee’s kooky talent: Imitation of her literary heroes and replication of their personal stationary. She can squeeze a lot of life into the space between the lines. Soon all her most profitable letter-writers have their own vintage typewriters. (I’ll preserve your pleasure in discovering who those writers are and how well she emulates them.) Her only confidante in the enterprise is Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant, the oddball character actor who here does little more than dust off his iconic Withnail for old time’s sake: Not a bad idea for a film about counterfeit goods. Together they do make quite the pair: Drunk, old, grumpy queers, dripping with contempt.
It’s good fun to relish their particular brand of badness, but “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a melancholy film. Early on, Lee attends a book party only to wander through the apartment scowling at the well-observed pomposity and steal from the coat check. She’s clever and naughty, but only because she really does need a coat, and it’s a vicious cycle. These two misanthropes both at the end of their tethers through their own actions, and they’re unnecessarily rude and ill-kept. They can be nice when they need to be, but their impulses are towards insult and insolence. They have what it takes, but they can’t bring themselves to even entertain the rules. McCarthy is shockingly good in this film, because her inherent charm somehow announces itself through Lee’s misery. The script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff
Whitty is prickly and precise, almost to a fault, but McCarthy finds all the right places to do the things she does best. It’s just enough to engage our sympathy until she gets her act together.
And there lies the issue: We know she will get her act together. She may not become charming, but Lee’s scheme can only go on for so long, and it can only end one way. Once we’re past a certain point, the film’s scabrous point of view wears off, and our pity outweighs both our sympathy and our interest. The work of the film’s talented director, Marielle Heller, is seamless and unobtrusive. But the story is meagre and its ambitions tidy. Without the McCarthy’s nuanced work, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” wouldn’t quite squeeze enough life into the space between these clever lines to be worth more than the going rate.