Desperate times require desperate measures. At least that’s what author Lee Israel thought when she started forging documents she said came from illustrious writers.
Chronicled in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” the scam had interesting twists and turns – ones that Melissa McCarthy is more than attuned to play. Shedding the comic cloak she has worn in recent films, she slyly figures out how she can make the money that isn’t coming in from writing assignments.
Once able to land book deals, she’s now told no one wants to read a biography of Fanny Brice. Instead of adapting, she fights back, loses and then stumbles onto the antiquities market.
Directed by Marielle Heller (based on Israel’s book), the film isn’t so much a “how to” as it is a “why.”
Irascible and profane, Israel is a bit like “Tootsie’s” Michael Dorsey – no one will work with her. So she reinvents herself and, in the process, becomes a better person.
Commiseration comes from Jack (Richard E. Grant), a gadabout who frequently joins her for drinks and dinner. When she needs help selling the fake letters, he steps in and becomes her go-between. To make the missives look authentic, she buys era-specific typewriters and researches the kinds of things folks like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward might say. She practices their signatures, too, and pulls off a fairly convincing letter.
When she learns ones with memorable comments sell better, she’s off and running – trying to outdo some of the most celebrated wits in history. Hardly a slouch at writing, she’s able to put words in their mouths they may have wished they said. The letters – too good to be believed – draw the attention of historians and, subsequently, authorities. Israel’s re-writing doesn’t last long but it does linger enough to give her a sense of satisfaction.
Heller keeps the story tightly focused, showing Israel’s poor attention to detail elsewhere (her apartment is a rat trap, literally) and her inability to get along with others. (Jane Curtin is ideal as her editor, delivering the truth without an ounce of comfort.) She gives McCarthy space, too, to feel her character’s pain and express it in ways many wouldn’t. With Grant, she’s a willing straight man, setting him up for the comic one-liners. Both are excellent; both are award-worthy.
While Israel’s crime might have worked years ago, collectors wouldn’t be so gullible today. The idea that she could write like the masters suggests she had a skill that might have been marketable, had she gone about it the right way.
The film is a fascinating slice of life – a cautionary tale for those who think it’s OK to dupe others as long as they don’t find out. Buyer beware, yes. But “by her,” no.