"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is a dual showcase for colorful, albeit reclusive, late author Lee Israel and for Melissa McCarthy (2018's "Life of the Party
"), who disappears into her potentially career-redefining dramatic role. This true account, based on Israel's 2008 memoir, is a fascinating story well told by director Marielle Heller (2015's "The Diary of a Teenage Girl") and co-scribes Nicole Holofcener (2002's "Lovely & Amazing
") and Jeff Whitty. It's also one which most viewers will likely not be familiarand not for lack of interest.
The year is 1991, the place Manhattan, and once-bestselling author Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has fallen on hard financial times. Recently fired, so broke she cannot pay for vet care for her sick cat Jersey, Lee types away on her next biography even as her straight-shooting agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) tells her in no uncertain terms readers have no interest in another book about Fanny Brice. Almost by accident, Lee stumbles upon a new means for making a living: forging literary letters from esteemed writers and selling them for a tidy profit. It's a criminal operation she hopes to keep close to the vest, but when the FBI begins sniffing around she recruits flamboyant drinking buddy Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to help her with this fraudulent scheme.
Lee Israel is a prickly, hard-drinking, but also sympathetic character, admirable if occasionally frustrating in her unapologetic demeanor. She is exactly who she is, and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. Her stubbornness keeps the sometimes darkly funny, other times sad character study "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" from having much of a narrative arc or moral center. There are few lessons learned and not much regret as the gravity of our protagonist's misdoings catch up to her. Still, Melissa McCarthy makes Lee Israel luminous, a drably clothed but thrillingly one-of-a-kind personality whose regrets are kept internally bottled. She sees through other people's b.s. right away, which is why, for a long while, she takes to fellow troubled soul Jack, played with slippery charisma and gravitas by Richard E. Grant (2017's "Logan
"). Dolly Wells (2016's "Bridget Jones's Baby
") is another standout as Anna, a bookkeeper and aspiring writer drawn to Lee's enigmatic allure.
In one terrific scene in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" agent Marjorie lays out Lee's faltering career in brutally honest terms: She was never willing to play the game of a public figure, to smile and schmooze and play nice; without this or a fresh, dynamite literary idea, her past lightning-in-a-bottle successes may never again be attained. Lee ultimately found a different, less commendable kind of notoriety, but one that proved little more than a blip on the radars of people who had never heard of her or her published work. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" finally gives her the spotlight, one she never was willing to accept but, in her own unique and challenging way, deserved.