I’ll say this for Can You Ever Forgive Me?: it gets a crucial part about writing correct, a part missed by so many pious films about writers. The lengths to which writers will go to avoid idleness. In director Marielle Heller’s telling, Lee Israel, a biographer of famous women who has lived long enough to see her Estée Lauder book get remaindered, is the most admirable fraud: committed to the scrupulous forgeries of letters written by Fannie Brice, Dorothy Parker, and Noel Coward. There is an art to this larceny, and I suspect Coward and probably Parker would have bought her another whiskey and soda, or at best not called the cops.
Specializing in roles that leaven abrasiveness with bonhomie, like waving a carnation at a bulldozer, Melissa McCarthy plays Lee, a functioning alcoholic and cat lady living in 1991 Manhattan on the dregs of her reputation. Her agent (a tart Jane Curtin) reprises the manner and offers the same advice that Sydney Pollack’s agent offered Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie: no one will buy a Lee Israel book anymore. Conducting research for her Brice bio at the library, she discovers a Brice letter stuck in a dusty tome. At first a dealer offers her a disappointing price: find me something juicier, he suggests. Lee’s a writer. Why find them when she can write them? Aided by an itinerant barfly named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) whom she met during an afternoon binge at Julius’, Lee soon floods the literary artifact world with phony letters, convincing buyers — for a while — that a loose affiliation of aunts hoarded these acerbic minor masterpieces.
Once Heller gets Can You Ever Forgive Her? going there isn’t much to this story — it’s an Oscar film sturdily told. The recreation of Poppy Bush-era New York City is the film’s best part: neighborhoods on the Lower East Side where bookstores occupied space not far from dive bars. I was pleased to see a table at Julius’ I’ve occupied a couple times this decade. Heller, who directed 2015’s brazen The Diary of a Teenage Girl, doesn’t gauze her camera with nostalgia, though. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s script gives born misanthrope Lee and on-the-make Jack reams of vinegary banter. Grant, in peak swish mode, does nothing he hasn’t done before; the role of Jack is a coda to those of us who’ve delighted in him since 1988’s Withnail and I, and for those unfortunates who haven’t they’ll enjoy his best showcase since at least then. Age has seared the flesh from his face; those eyes the color of melted snow blaze with the remembrances of slights past. Refreshingly, he’s allowed a sex life — Jack isn’t merely Lee’s gay pal. Lee herself forecloses the possibility of romance with one of her suckers; Heller is sharp enough to let this woman hint that she knows the truth and doesn’t give a damn. Unwilling to integrate, content with growling from the margins, Lee and Jack are two of the more authentically queer characters in recent Hollywood film.
Although it’s clear by the halfway point that figuring out how Lee and Jack will outfox the FBI, which has gotten wind of their racket, generates the tension, Can You Ever Forgive Me? has to bring the bathos too. The last fifteen minutes go soft for the sake of, I don’t know, humanizing the pair or something, as if alcoholic outliers with delusions of grandeur weren’t human. Charlatans operating at a level as grand as Lee’s deserve credit (that’s partly what Orson Welles’ delightful F is For Fake addresses). “I’m certainly not angry anymore, though it was an expensive and very large learning experience for me,” said the owner of Argosy Book Store upon the publication of Lee’s memoir a decade ago. “And she’s really an excellent writer. She made the letters terrific.” That Can You Ever Forgive Me?, title aside, sidesteps redemption for its characters is reward enough.