On its surface the story of Lee Israel is the story of a devious criminal mastermind; a literary forger who used her shockingly adept literary voice to impersonate a number of high profile authors in the form of personal letters and notes, which she then sold to every auctioneer in New York. But this is not the story Can You Ever Forgive Me? presents.
At least not really.
Starring the perennially criminally underappreciated Mellisa Mcarthy as the middling biographer Israel, the film forgoes the thrill and nuclear destruction normally associated with criminal enterprise for a much sadder look at the tragedy of Israel’s relationship with herself and the world around her. In many ways, this approach bears a strong resemblance to the style of the last film I reviewed (The Old Man and the Gun) in that each film rejects the typical bigger than life depiction of crimes for a noticeably subdued mediation on their context in the grander scheme of things.
In Lee Israel’s case, it is her commercial failings that have pushed her to the edge of the law. A moderately successful writer of biographies on (somewhat) important women, Israel’s work is increasingly out of touch with a society that craves the instant thrill delivered by the page-turners of writers like Tom Clancy. And it doesn’t help that Israel is, well, kind of a dick. Luckily Mcarthy’s lively performance and some quick-witted writing make the journey with Israel bearable (and sometimes quite enjoyable) but to the literary community and her agent (Jane Curtain), this behavior is not exactly helping to make the right inroads. As Israel’s agent reminds her “You can be an asshole when you’re rich”. So deep in debt, a sick cat in tow, and with no new book deal in sight, Israel’s discovery of the gold lined world of literary treasures requires little thought by her before she jumps headfirst in.
Israel is a drowning woman swimming towards the monstrous storms clouds above the horizon in hopes of rescue on the other side, and yet during her journey, there is a strange absence of the fiery tension of a fight with death. Instead, we are left with all the numb confusion that a dead-end in life is so good at eliciting.
And this is absolutely the right approach to take.
Directed by Marielle Heller (who also co-wrote with Nicole Holofcener), after choosing a much more “artsy” direction with her first film Diary of a Teenage Girl, Will You Ever Forgive Me? smartly takes the attention away from the more bombastic elements of Israel’s true story in order to focus its efforts on a nuanced portrait of a woman inebriated by fear and loathing. There is never any doubt that Israel is a wicked smart woman with immense talent, the sly glint of Mcarthy’s eyes proves this much, but her isolating decisions have boxed her into little more than a cautionary tale about the perils of disconnecting from your reality. She is the commercially unsuccessful version of Hemingway, and it is to Heller’s credit that Can You Ever Forgive Me? confronts this utterly unromantic truth head-on. Surprisingly, the film’s decidedly un-ambitious nature is its greatest boon here, allowing Heller to cut right to the heart of Israel’s brokenness. A timidly melodic piano score and a stale coffee color scheme are all that is needed to suck the audience into Israel’s shoes and trap them in a soul-suckingly hopeless prison of her own creation.
But of course Israel’s situation wasn’t hopeless and it is Heller’s ability to steer the film clear of rote art-house cliche that brings heart to the movie. Israel’s partner in crime and new friend Jack (played with a breathtaking gusto by Richard Grant) shares Israel’s hard-drinking and lone wolf ways. Yet despite being faced with a similarly poor way of life, Jack’s melodic speech and joyous ways show an alternative and Israel’s musical rapport with the man offers hope that she has this change in her.
If only Israel can learn to forgive herself.