In her excellent adaptation of Lee Israel’s literary fraudster memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, director Marielle Heller takes viewers on a hilarious tour of New York’s memorabilia dealers, blending a mixture of heist comedy with a sensitive character study of Israel herself: “bitter as a root”, to use her own expression, but not without a certain irascible charm.
Witty aphorisms and smart one-liners are more than alive in the age of social media. Scrolling through Twitter, it’s easy to think that the smart put-downs of Dorothy Parker or Noël Coward would do well in an age of quick exchanges and an economy of words. Whilst Can You Ever Forgive Me? – a story which centres on the world of autograph dealers and memorabilia traders – might seem like a niche interest area, watching the film is a reminder of how little some things change across the centuries. It takes a sideways look at the nature of celebrity and authenticity, exploring the idea of the writer behind the words in a way that makes plenty of sense in an era of Catfishing, online forgery and carefully stage-managed social media accounts.
Centre stage is Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), on whose memoir the film is based: a down-at-luck author with as natural a talent for writing as pissing people off. Having once found herself on the New York Times bestseller list with a series of biographies, Israel found herself in financial trouble after a series of aborted projects and poor sales on her completed books. After losing her job as a legal proofreader, she comes close to being evicted and is forced to part ways with a cherished letter (genuine) written to her by Katharine Hepburn following a journalism assignment.
Seeing the potential market for celebrity letters, Israel realises how uniquely qualified she is to forge a few notes – having spent most of her professional life as a meticulous researcher into the lives of others. As her project escalates, she enlists the help of Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) – a small-scale drug dealer and bon viveur only too glad to take part in Lee’s scheme. The pair gradually get themselves deeper into hot water, as the FBI begin asking questions and Lee is driven to ever more desperate measures.
We’re treated to a look around the same literary New York familiar from Woody Allen and Noah Baumbach, but given more of an outsider’s perspective (Lee filling up on free drinks at the house party of an agent who long ago stopped returning her calls). McCarthy’s performance is outstanding and she fills Lee with churlish selfishness and a sense of sad desperation. She’s bruised but badly behaved, sad but awful, and funny in a way that perhaps only the bitterest amongst us can be.
The screenplay was elegantly adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s book and the direction is fantastic (a special mention should also go out to the selection of music in the soundtrack, which mixes Paul Simon and the Pixies into more conventional cuts of wistful New York jazz). The end result is a film that’s difficult to fault: funny, sad and smarter than a Dorothy Parker put-down. A literary film which gives no ground to snobbery, just a faithful portrayal of a complicated, talented woman who delighted in bending the rules.