Recent Comments

    A Darkly Funny Queer True Crime Story: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

    By Gary M. Kramer–

    Can You Ever Forgive Me?, opening October 26 in the Bay Area, is director Marielle Heller’s fabulous dark comedy-drama—based on a true story—about Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a lonely lesbian who was once a New York Times bestselling author, but now can’t pay her vet bill.

    As the film opens, Lee gets fired from a job, and tries to figure out her next move. Broke and antisocial, she just wants to write a biography of Fanny Brice, but her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) claims that there is no market for her work. Moreover, Marjorie insists that if Lee wants to be taken seriously again she needs to be nicer to people—and be sober.

    A heavy drinker, Lee heads to Julius’, the gay bar in the village, to get drunk. It is at Julius’ where Lee reconnects with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay man she once met at a party, who becomes her drinking buddy and coconspirator.

    The pair develop a close bond, having fun pranking a bookseller who gave Lee grief, and getting tight at every opportunity.

    But with money tight, Lee needs to find a way to pay some bills. She eventually resorts to selling to bookseller Anna (Dolly Wells) a personal letter Katharine Hepburn wrote to her. When she discovers some original Fanny Brice letters in a library book, Lee realizes there is a lucrative market in famous letters, so she concocts a scheme to forge some. Lee procures different typewriters and creates old, “authentic” stationery, forges signatures and writes bon mots in the style of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, among other literary luminaries, to make the phony letters more valuable. 

    Lee has instant success selling these documents to Anna as well as to others in the collectibles world, including Paul (out gay actor Stephen Spinella), and Alan (Ben Falcone). With her despair suspended, and batteries recharged, Lee starts enjoying life again. She splurges, taking Jack out to dinner and to a drag performance, getting vet care for her sick cat and even cleaning up her apartment, which has been a disaster area for far longer than Lee cares to admit. (There is a very good reason for why she is having a fly problem.)

    What is more, Lee picks up on the hints that Anna wants to date her, and even agrees to go out to dinner with the bookseller who is enamored with the once-famous writer. Their date is awkward and sad, but it is hard not to hope for the misanthropic Lee to connect with someone on an emotional level. While she advises only Jack of her criminal enterprise, their friendship gets tested as Lee’s forgeries start generating some unwanted attention and she employs Jack to handle some sales and other matters.

    Can You Ever Forgive Me? starts out as a darkly funny comedy, with the bitter Lee misbehaving towards others and dispensing some hilarious one-liners. Lee drips cynicism and sarcasm in a diner sharing Jack’s food while he leers at a cute Latino waiter and asks him inappropriately about his cinnamon buns. But as the film progresses, it gets oddly poignant as Lee uses her talents to her advantage, albeit illegally, and finds a sense of self.

    McCarthy makes Lee quite sympathetic even when she is most pathetic. The actress gives a sly dramatic turn, capturing Lee’s anger and frustration at being almost forgotten in the literary world with her secret satisfaction of getting one over on all the folks she scams. It’s a high wire act of a performance, and McCarthy induces giddiness as she acts all unassuming while plotting ways to pull off her hoax. She is also quite touching, most notably when she meets her ex, Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith), to have a heart-to-heart with her during a particularly low period in her life. McCarthy is ably abetted by Richard E. Grant, who is perfectly cast as the feckless Jack—always up for mischief. While his relationship with Lee falters when he abuses and loses her trust, Grant’s performance is always top-notch.

    The fun of watching Lee getting away with her forgeries eventually takes a serious turn as Lee gets creative in trying to escape the law and procures some real letters so as not to arouse suspicion from her vendors. Nevertheless, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is mostly a rollicking good time about bad behavior. Lee’s impersonating Nora Ephron to get Marjorie to take her calls, or her catty rapport with Jack, add to the hilarity. Moreover, some of the witticisms when she writes as Dorothy Parker about her hangover are very amusing.

    Heller features a terrific soundtrack of old songs to emphasize the film’s wistful mood and includes some clever comic bits at the end, making sure that Lee and audiences get the last laugh.

    © 2018 Gary M. Kramer

    Gary M. Kramer is the author of “Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews,” and the co-editor of “Directory of World Cinema: Argentina.” Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer