Can You Ever Forgive Me review

This article contains spoilers for Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In a poignant narrative for our current time, where we question the veracity of established institutions, the Marianne Heller-directed biopic about 90’s writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) titled Can You Ever Forgive Me? tells the story of a monetarily-challenged writer whose hustle involves embodying characters of famous people in the past. Israel forges letters that pass as originals from whichever person she decides to embody, and then she sells them to collectors for hundreds of dollars at a time.

Both people she encounters in early exploits, Jack Hock (Richard Grant) and bookish collector Anna (Dolly Wells), end up following the descent of McCarthy’s character into increasingly more involved crimes. Anna falls off the ride after an awkward dinner encounter, suggestive of Israel’s infatuation with Anna, but Hock, the other apple of Israel’s eye, sticks with it until the very end. Previously the introverted cat-lady, Israel finds herself in increasingly intimate relationships with the people she is drawing into harm. After cutting off Anna, Israel places the dependency of her happiness onto Hock, and she forms a bond with a close friend that’s suggested she has never had before. However, when Israel’s prize cat dies while she is away on the climactic heist of the film, she blames Hock, throwing him out of her life. Ultimately, Israel is an abrasive and emotionally abusive character towards Hock, but the film does not color it that way. Israel is in conversation with every brooding, male, Byronic hero that has captured the narrative imagination for years. McCarthy herself has said that Israel is the character every woman wants to play. Every nuance of character drawn out by the film seems like a rational character digression, until the point where it is too much. But unlike the male protagonist of days past, Israel does not quite get everything she wants.

All of the film is not just one performance though, and every piece comes together to create a nostalgic sense of New York City, of flamboyant characters, and of feeling real import. There are shots that linger in just the right places to leave you bathing in the colors, the beauty, and the experience of it all. It’s a narrative film that touches all the right notes of character development and plot progression, but also one interspersed with moments of poetry, like the sickly yellow and black, gay bar on the Upper West Side, that left me wanting more.

In the end, this slow burn drama is filled with expansive characters and moments of non-narrative cinema that help transform a potentially standard biopic into a film that draws the imagination away from the face value question of trust in the post-truth era. The questions left to us by the film are the defining questions of our humanity. What does it mean to love another person? Are we able to forgive those people for their misdeeds? Should we?