Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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This year’s San Diego International Film Festival opened with this interesting movie (which has an almost perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes). It’s the story of Lee Israel, a biographer that isn’t doing so well. She often bugs her publisher (a small, but interesting role for Jane Curtin) about a variety of things. My wife thinks Israel is somewhere on the spectrum. And it’s a safe bet that’s accurate, because this is one unlikeable misanthrope. That might make this movie hard for some people to watch, as there’s never a time in the entire film where you feel bad for her; and she has lots of episodes where she’s feeling sorry for herself.

Actress turned director Marielle Heller impressed the hell out of me with her debut film The Diary of a Teenage Girl a few years back. And after seeing her second movie, I hope she continues her career behind the camera because she’s giving us some rather interesting stuff.

Melissa McCarthy has already shown she can act in serious roles (anybody see St. Vincent with Bill Murray?). With this one, she and co-star Richard E. Grant might nab some Oscar nominations. They’ve got great chemistry together, and he steals every scene he’s in. He also brings much comic relief as friend and drinking buddy Jack Hock with the big….personality.

In the same weekend Bohemian Rhapsody is opening, and many talked about the director that dropped out of that, as well as the original Freddie Mercury (Sacha Baron Cohen); this movie had a few similar things. It was originally supposed to be directed by Nicole Holofcener (who did the underrated Enough Said and Please Give) and to star Julianne Moore. Just as Cohen left the Queen movie, and Freddie left Queen the first time — it was creative differences that brought in Heller and McCarthy.

Israel was having problems paying rent, so she decided she’d sell a letter she had framed on her wall from Katherine Hepburn. She got a bit of money for it, but as the buyer pointed out — it would be worth more of it was a more interesting letter. The light bulb went off in her head. She typed a P.S. onto the next letter, and made a bit more money. That lead to her going a few steps further — writing the entire letter, and forging the signature. And from a variety of famous people. Now, that doesn’t mean she didn’t have any original letters to sell, but she’d use those as templates to create the forgeries. It also gave her an opportunity to use her creative side to write humorous and interesting letters. For about a year in 1991, she forged over 100 letters and made a lot of money.

She figured….why write biographies of Estee Lauder, Dorothy Kilgallen, Fanny Brice, or Tallulah Bankhead, when she could quickly type out a letter from a famous person? She was smart enough to start buying old typewriters in pawn shops. She’d use the same ones for the same people. She even went a step further to print letterhead from the famous people she forged (be sure to read the info that appears at the end of the movie for some very interesting fun facts about how those letters even appeared in future biographies on these people).

Israel also enjoyed this more than the overnight shift proofreading legal documents (which ended when she mouthed off to a boss). Yet just as the boss was quick to fire her because of her attitude, we spend the whole movie despising her. That doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally laugh at something rude she spews to someone. Unfortunately that’s usually Jack, who we like (despite the fact that he may be a drug dealer and prostitute).

It’s hard to feel sympathy for someone that steals toiletries and a coat at a party, drinks too much, talks bad about everyone (including Tom Clancy at a party), forges letters that she knows others collect, and is such a slob she has flies and cat poop all over her house. There’s one real subtle example of just how much of a jerk she. There’s a female bookstore owner she takes a fancy to, and who has read the biographies Israel has written. They go out to dinner, and this woman admits to wanting to also write. She gives Israel a story she’s written and asks her to read it and give her opinion. Well, right before Israel goes to sleep, she’s reading another book. She puts that down on her nightstand, grabs the pages this woman gave her, and puts them down without even opening it. It’s not like she read the first few paragraphs and it was so bad, she put it down. This scene is so telling about how horrible a person she is. Even a person she’s attracted to, and wants to make money off of…she can’t be bothered to read her work and offer some faint praise.

Again, that might make this a hard watch for some viewers. It certainly would’ve helped to have a more likable protagonist.

I did like how a lot of this film isn’t overwritten. For example, there’s a scene where Israel meets up with an old lover in Central Park. It tells us a bit more about her character.

Another scene, with a bit more humor, has Israel arguing with her publisher. The publisher is talking about how no one will read her biographies, and it reminded me of Sydney Pollock telling Dustin Hoffman “No one will hire you” in Tootsie.

The soundtrack is solid, with Billie Holiday (I’ll Be Seeing You), Blossom Dearie (Charade), and we hear a lot of Paul Simon’s Can’t Run But.

I wish the movie had a bit more of a voice, and that it wasn’t so glorifying of Israel’s reprehensible behavior. Maybe I just feel that way because I collect signed memorabilia like the pieces she forged; but it’s also why I may like this movie more than others.

3 stars out of 5.

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