Movie Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

This seems to be the week in Hong Kong for releasing films about desperate women who take desperate actions. Unlike THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER though, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? takes a decidedly lighter tack.

Based on the memoir of the same name, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? recounts the story of failing writer Lee Israel and her venture into the business of literary forgery and larceny. It’s 1992 in New York City and Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy, GHOSTBUSTERS (2016); SPY; ST. VINCENT) hasn’t quite hit rock bottom but she’s certainly well on her way there. Though her biographies of Hollywood screen legend Tallulah Bankhead among others, were popular in the 1970s and ’80s, Israel’s work is now out of step with current tastes. While unsuccessfully battling through writer’s block to write yet another biography that no one is interested in, she supports herself and her cat by working the graveyard shift as a copy editor at a publishing house. Her heavy drinking and acerbic tongue, however, cut that gig short. Out of a job and penniless, she decides to sell a signed letter that Katherine Hepburn had written to her years earlier. It was then when she realised that forging letters written by famous 20th century writers and actors from the past would be her meal ticket. Along with her new friend, the eccentric coke-dealer and conman Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD; THE FINEST; JACKIE), the pair passes off more than 400 such letters until the their activities catch the attention of the FBI a little more than a year later.

McCarthy is well-known for her over-the-top brand of comedy (remember her hilarious stint impersonating White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer?) but in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? her usual comic shtick is absent. Here, she plays Israel as the dowdy, feisty, desperate, middle-aged woman that the writer was, and she does it superbly. It would be hard to imagine another actress in this role yet Julianne Moore was apparently originally cast as Lee Israel. What a mistake that would have been and not just because of Ms. Moore’s body shape, which looks nothing like the real Israel’s.

The real Lee Israel

Grant is equally well cast as Israel’s partner-in-crime. The real Jack Hock was apparently a good deal younger than Grant, and American, but that doesn’t matter as Grant imbues Hock with a wonderful air of roguery mixed with flamboyance that the real character probably had. It’s easy to see how Israel and Hock must have loved scamming the very people who sniffed at her biographies.

As enjoyable as the two performances are, it’s that old adage of truth being stranger than fiction that makes this film so appealing. It’s amazing that even when the people Israel was conning were made aware of the letters’ fabrication, they still continued to sell them as genuine. Even today, some of them recall that episode with humour.

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? is a thoroughly entertaining movie. Watching it, it’s hard not to cheer for Israel and perhaps even be a little jealous of her chutzpah. Definitely check it out! (I may not forgive you if you don’t.)

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, December 14th at 8:30 am HK time!

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