Based on a true story, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?" tells a tale so irresistible — about a cranky Manhattan freelance writer who has fallen on hard times and embarks on a career as a forger of literary letters — it seems made for the movies. Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4.
“I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” says Lee Israel (a brilliant Melissa McCarthy), in an exasperated tone. She’s not kidding.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” the based-on-a-true-story second feature from the talented Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), tells a story so irresistible it seems made for the movies. Israel, a cranky Manhattan freelance writer, has fallen on hard times in the early ’90s: her editor won’t take her calls (unless she pretends to be Nora Ephron), she can’t get a book deal, she’s falling behind on her rent, and her beloved cat is ailing. What to do? Embark on a career as a forger of literary letters, of course! Israel quickly acquires a cadre of vintage typewriters, sharpens up her snark, tilts her TV sideways to use it as a light table, and gets busy creating letters signed by the likes of Parker, Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Louise Brooks and many more. None of the dealers to whom she sells the letters seem particularly concerned about their provenance; they just hand over the cash. Until they don’t.
While the movie isn’t exactly a comedy, Heller gives it a cozy rom-com veneer: the soundtrack is jazzy nostalgia (Blossom Dearie, Dinah Washington), the autumn-toned Manhattan streets seem quiet and hopeful, the bookstores in which Israel hawks her wares are picturesquely dusty. But a welcome edge is brought by the nastiness of its two central characters. Israel, a casually amoral eccentric, is played by McCarthy without a twinkle; we love this self-absorbed character but never like her. (Watch McCarthy’s face curl into a small masterpiece of horror when it’s suggested, late in the film, that Lee do some community service.) And her partner in crime, Jack Hock, is likewise nobody you’d ever want to meet; Richard E. Grant plays him with a full inventory of devious swallowed-the-canary grins.
But by the movie’s too-quick end, all you want is to hang out with these two just a little bit longer; to listen to McCarthy’s Lee expound on why she broke up with her girlfriend (“She wanted me to listen to her troubles”), and watch her matter-of-factly stealing a coat at a party, and root for the doomed spark she seems to be creating with a sweetly unsuspecting bookstore owner (Dolly Wells). And the movie lets Israel have the last laugh, deliciously so. Ms. Parker might well have approved.
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★★★½ “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” with Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella. Directed by Marielle Heller, from a screenplay by Nicole Holofcenter and Jeff Whitty, based on the book by Lee Israel. 106 minutes. Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use. Opens Nov. 2 at SIFF Egyptian, Grand Cinema.