Monday, December 10, 2018

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Biographer Lee Israel's career as a literary forger might sound quaintly exotic or like small potatoes, and it's surely both of those, but all the talent onboard this picture can't help making it good. Director Marielle Heller's previous feature, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was just as full of surprises and just as shockingly candid too. Cowriter Nicole Holofcener (director and writer of Friends With Money, Please Give, and many more all good) has a wonderful ease with natural small-scale domestic scenes. Richard E. Grant shows up to reprise a version of his role in the stupendous Withnail & I from 1987. And Melissa McCarthy turns in an achingly beautiful and precise performance as the hard-drinking Israel, a bitter literary misanthrope out of the school of 20th century Manhattan bohemia. Can You Ever Forgive Me? works in lots of ways, as a probing look into the life of a bookish middle-aged loner (saw a lot of myself in her), as a caper movie forgery division, as a nostalgic meditation on New York City, as a wrenching drama, and even as a thriller. Lee Israel was a real person, the whole thing is based on a true story, it must be Oscar season! Israel, born in 1939, broke in as a magazine feature writer in the '60s with a piece for Esquire on Katharine Hepburn. Eventually she wrote biographies of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen (a bestseller in 1980), and Estee Lauder. Then her career went south. She was a classic of the type of New York literati who is out of step and yet so swimmingly in it, from Ring Lardner to Fran Lebowitz. In the movie, Israel's story is she's working on a Fanny Brice biography. No one knows who Fanny Brice is, a continuing wound to her—kind of slapstick in its repetitions, but always painful. Now she's going broke, three months behind on the rent and owing everyone she sees money. Her vet won't even look at her sick cat until she comes up with money. Her agent (Jane Curtin) knows she will never be able to sell her work again and tells Israel, in a brutal confrontation in her office, to find another line of work. So she does, as one thing leads to another and we soon enter the damp world of obsessive collectors willing to pay high prices for objects graced by celebrity. In this case, it's letters from New York's midcentury toast of the town, Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks, Lillian Hellman, etc. The big kahuna, of course, is Dorothy Parker as usual. Me, I'm a little tired of glorying up those writers again, good as they are, but OK. It works as context for all the harrowing places this movie manages to go. Can You Ever Forgive Me? gets to be downright gripping once she goes into business with the forgeries—you know she can't possibly get away with it for long. McCarthy and Grant are just great and so is Lee Israel's story. This one might surprise you.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your very positive take on this one, Jeff -- I was ready to go see it as soon as I finished reading the review. Teresa told me we'd already heard a discussion of the movie on NPR, but I guess that didn't reach me as acutely. Anyway, we caught up with the film on Sunday, and that was the most engrossed I've been inside a cinema for years. I hadn't ever expected Hollywood to come up with something portraying so much in common with my own earlier life (relatively speaking) -- pecking away on a manual typewriter in a freelancer's solo garret, carrying a stack of promo LP's into the record exchange when we needed more groceries, taking one of our cats to the vet (never refused service due to an overdue account, fortunately), on and on. Of course, I managed to avoid committing any of the sorts of fraud Lee Israel did, in my written creations, unless you count one or two emotions I faked when I did that lucrative-but-not-my-beat video column for CREEM Metal in the '80s. I can't add anything to your review, you've got it down perfectly, very impressive performances by both Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant (heard him interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air just before seeing the movie, quite a story in his own life.) -- Richard M. Riegel