There’s a certain thrill that comes with going into a biopic or a movie based on a true event without any prior knowledge of the person or the story. Throughout the entire film, sitting there watching the events unfold no matter crazy or unrealistic they seem, it’s difficult to shake the notion that they once happened in the world. And because of that, there’s an ending out there that can only go one way, and waiting for that to be revealed is an anticipation like no other because sometimes Hollywood can’t surprise you, but the universe does. Can You Ever Forgive Me? feels like it’s a tale too wild to be true, but the mere fact that it does not only intensify interest in both its plot and its message.
Based on her written memoir under the same name, the film is centered on Lee Israel, a sardonic, somewhat recluse writer, who is out of work and out of money. Her agent doesn’t want to help her. She has no real friends or relationships with anyone other than her cat. But it’s clear she is a pretty good writer. After all, she’s been on The New York Times bestseller list as she reminds her agent, trying to convince her to get her an advance on a Fanny Brice biography. The problem is that nobody is interested in a Fanny Brice biography, and certainly, no one is interested in working with Israel. From the opening of the film, the story lets us know immediately that she’s an extremely difficult person, who is both frank and sarcastic but sometimes just outright mean.
In her state of financial desperation, however, she weighs her options and sells a valuable letter written to her from which she ends up getting a decent chunk of money. Eventually, while researching for the Fanny Brice biography at the local library, she comes across a few of Fanny’s letters. She steals them, adds a small entertaining, embellishment to one of the letters, and then sells it for good money, receiving much enthusiasm from the buyer. And from this, her crime life has started. Along the way, she finds herself more alive than she’s ever been as she continues to write and sell letters in the tone of famous authors claiming they are authentic. At the same time, she also begins to develop a close friendship with Jack Hock, someone who enjoys her company and can take her harsh banter.
Melissa McCarthy is truly excellent in this film. By Israel’s very nature, her character is witty and sarcastic, making hilarious comments from time to time, but McCarthy plays those beats so perfectly in a way that balances well with the sincerity of the situation. In fact, the more comedic comments and actions made by Israel’s character work to convey her very serious problems regarding insecurity in her chosen career, and a fear of getting close to others, both of which contribute to the point she’s at when the movie begins. You feel a great amount of sympathy toward how desperate of a situation she’s in and her livelihood, but you also don’t necessarily feel the need to make excuses for her criminal actions nor how she treats others. And through McCarthy’s skilled performance, all of these various emotions are unveiled at once without being too overt, highlighting their connection.
By conveying Israel’s own inner problems, the film also emphasizes what may have been her largest concern with herself other than her financial failure, which is that of her writing. Although she appears to be someone who just wants to make a buck so that she can feed herself and her cat, we’re asked to go deeper than that and consider why she only writes biographies of others, and why she felt more comfortable hiding behind the names of famous writers rather than writing something just as entertaining under her own name. As we all know because of the fact that the film is based on Israel’s memoir, she ended up coming full circle, writing about her own experiences, ultimately marking the significance and purpose of this time in her life in spite of how much trouble it got her. And now history remembers her for this, rather than the failed biographer she was going to be had the events of this story never occurred.
Beyond the figure of Israel herself, Can You Ever Forgive Me? intentionally or not, poses the question of how the world chooses to value writing and writers themselves. These collectors buy letters from the likes of Hemingway and others because of their literary name and merit (and Israel’s juicy content) yet Lee Israel, once on the New York Times Bestseller list is starving, can’t pay rent, and can’t get a new book deal. Of course, much of that as her publisher lays out, is because of how difficult she is to work with and her refusal to properly promote her material. Even still, however, the film makes the point of inventing a fictional character who specifically acts as Israel’s cheerleader and admirer, which allows audiences to think that Israel isn’t in her position or state of poverty because she’s a bad writer who can’t reach audiences with her writing. But that a writing career is almost never guaranteed to last a lifetime and that being talented and entertaining isn’t all it takes to succeed long term.
While what Israel did is wrong, both demeaning and taking advantage of the very profession she aspired toward, it’s a biopic about a criminal that’s rather tame in comparison to other, larger federal crimes per se. But it’s extremely engaging nonetheless. Therefore, Can You Ever Forgive Me? doesn’t ask the audience to forgive its protagonist of her flaws or her crimes, but to embark on this journey with her without too much guilt, just as she seems to have, and witness a moment in history that probably would be near impossible to pull off in our current time.