Film Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in  Can You Ever Forgive Me?  | Fox Searchlight

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in Can You Ever Forgive Me? | Fox Searchlight


To the ears of a writer, nothing is as satisfying as the sounds of a typewriter typing away. It’s got that antique sort of quality that is distilled in films like A Midnight in Paris (2011) -  even if that particular film sucked. With a film like A Midnight in Paris, it attempts to evoke the antiquated paper-y smells and successes of literature’s first great era of the 20th century, with the addition of cheating douchebags. But Can You Ever Forgive Me?, directed by Marielle Heller, begins with a similar premise, and injects it with the charming story of a great queer literary icon. The true Joanne the Scammer. 

Based on the memoir by protagonist Lee Israel, Can You Ever Forgive Me? dictates the self-published story of how Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a struggling author who worked in the 60s and 70s, scammed all the richest of the rich in the bougie literary community in the 90s by forging a widespread collection of letters written by famous writers, including Dorothy Parker. Along with her friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), Israel manages to swindle everybody before finally being caught by the FBI. She served five years of probation and six months house arrest, and published her titular memoir soon after. 

Melissa McCarthy and Dolly Wells in  Can You Ever Forgive Me?  | Time Magazine, Gazette

Melissa McCarthy and Dolly Wells in Can You Ever Forgive Me? | Time Magazine, Gazette

What begins as a seemingly chirpy and humorous winter movie, is actually a charming and somber film about two queer icons, one that doesn’t revolve on their queerness, but is about their livelihoods as struggling people. Lee Israel clearly suffers from depression, and you can see how it manifests in her apartment - from the dead flies on her pillow, to the pounds of old cat poop under her bed. Her last relationship essentially left her in shambles, leaving her unable to welcome any new intimacy into her life, even when given the chance through a nice bookseller lady named Anna. Hock, whose life ultimately ended from AIDS complications, is quirky and messy and acts as the upswing to Israel’s downward spiral. That is, of course, until he inadvertently kills her dear cat and their whole scam goes up in flames. At the end of the day though, they eventually come together as two convicted felons merely living out the rest of their lives in sweet harmony. Israel claims something interesting at the end, and what I think is a great takeaway from this film, and that is that the story of Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not about their scam, but about their unlikely friendship.

The film is marketed as, like I said, a chirpy winter movie, and whether that was intentional for good reasons or bad by Fox Searchlight, it’s a unique Trojan horse to the true story behind the book cover. It is really no coincidence that, at least in the film, the triggering detail that tipped off the FBI was a letter Israel forged in the name of Noel Coward - the letter gave away too much of his homosexuality that would’ve otherwise been under wraps. It’s the kind of story that many minorities may look for these days, one that focuses not on what necessarily puts them in the margins but on what makes them lovable human beings. 

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant have a dynamic buddy chemistry that honestly is really great. McCarthy, whose previous works include more lighthearted and raunchier comedies like Bridesmaids and The Heat, still is a two-time Primetime Emmy Award winning actress, and she really proves her chops portraying Lee Israel here. The nuances of her performance come through in ways that are pretty indescribable, whether due to her realistic acting or my dodgy memory. Are there criticisms to be made in McCarthy’s (and Grant’s) casting as two straight people playing two gay people? Of course there is.