Can You Ever Forgive Me? (18, B+)

Hi! In keeping with Can You Ever Forgive Me? and the post-court epiphany of its heroine, I don’t believe I can proceed with anything before I write about myself for a bit. First, sorry for the general lack of activity here. I really did want to finish the Where Were They Then series and keep up writing reviews in general. I eventually gave the time I devoted to non-academic writing towards studying for the GRE and grad school prep, which I abandoned altogether around the end of October after the death of my grandmother. I realized that I was massively unprepared to attend, let alone apply for grad school, and literally couldn’t afford to go through the motions only to be turned down. I think I’ll wait another year, it’ll be the best year ever (hopefully, and maybe just on a personal scale, insofar as one can ignore America going to hell). With that massive source of stress lifted off my shoulders, I hope to get back to regular pieces on here again. I’ve missed writing for me.

To get into that spirit, I’ve decided to start with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, one of the funniest, sharpest, and most poignant films to come from 2018. Based on the memoir of historian Lee Israel as she recounts the hundreds of forged personal letters of noted historical literary figured she sold in 1990’s New York, all of the film’s major artists are completely in sync with Lee’s bitter intelligence and biting wit, honoring her prickly exterior even as they fully examine what made her tick. Director Marielle Heller – the wizard who made the extraordinary but underseen The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015 -, screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, and actress Melissa McCarthy are perfectly attuned to her layers of self-defensive and self-pitying hardness, finding deep insight into this woman while staying firmly in her point of view and without softening her exteriors in the slightest. We’re able to sympathize with Lee as she’s repeatedly forced to confront how poor her prospects are while knowing what role she’s had at landing herself in that situation, and how fair that situation ultimately is. We’re excited as she tentatively reaches out to a woman named Anna that’s been buying her letters and wonder, with some dread, what will happen between the two when Lee is inevitably caught, and if Lee will push away this new friend of hers before the police get involved.

Heller achieves the same tonally layered achievement she pulled off in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, though it takes a little while for the film, director, and star performance to really take off. Not that the film isn’t good in its initial scenes – Lee being so rude she gets fired from a crap job she couldn’t care less about, Lee skulking through her agent’s party and swiping a luxurious coat on her way out, Lee confronting her agent for not calling her back and arguing about the state of her career – but the script feels as though it’s trying to survey every reason in her life that would make her turn to crime. The score feels too prominent and too readily inserted into scenes where we’re already on Lee’s side. Heller’s direction and McCarthy’s performance emerge fully formed but without much story to latch onto, at least until Jack Hock recognizes Lee at Julius’ bar and the two start drinking there regularly. Then Lee starts selling her forgeries, making enough money to pay her rent and buy her cat medications, getting more praise for her forgeries than she’s gotten for her own work in a long time, and Lee begins investing in making forgeries for a living.

Once the film starts hitting its stride, it finds a low-key but powerful balance of crowd pleasing fun, petty cruelty, and genuine insight that’s an absolute delight to watch. It’s The Wolf of Wall Street for the gays, with smaller but far more personal stakes, and enough self-awareness and variation in tone that it becomes an incisive character study rather than a noxious, tiring parade of a wholly unpleasant person and their ecosystem. There’s no indication to view the film as some big statement on its subject matter, no unearned grandiosity that’s wildly unsuited towards this character and this subject matter. We know that this will end with Lee getting caught, that these crimes are being perpetrated in a very niche corner of America, their damages undone once uncovered, and the film chooses to be a portrait of the people in that corner and the systems in place that should have noticed this sooner. I see a lot of value simply from portraying the characters of such a corner so honestly, taking these literary figures and the love they inspire seriously while fully acknowledging that Fanny Brice and Dorothy Parker aren’t particularly well known to people that don’t travel in those circles. The foibles and passions of its characters are never mocked, even when they’re knocking each other down a peg or making mistakes a lesser film would would mine for caricature. At every moment the film is acting on so many levels of  that we can see what’s funny and what’s cruel about Lee insulting the agent that has been avoiding her for weeks but still offers her a few sincere olive branches when cornered and bites back without losing her composure.

Still, the thing that I love most about Can You Ever Forgive Me? is how it functions as a very specific portrait of queerness, deeply rooted  in the characters it’s about and the circles they run in, without being “about” gayness the way Love, Simon, Boy Erased, and Miseducation of Cameron Post are. Not to knock those films for that line of focus – part of it is simply that all those characters are either discovering their sexuality and/or facing direct repercussions for it. But damn is it nice to see a film populated with so many gay characters where their sexuality is integral to who they are without it also being the “point” of the narrative. Almost all the people in Can You Ever Forgive Me? are middle aged, existing in environments and social circles full of queer people, completely comfortable with their sexuality even if other parts of their lives are completely in flux. It’s in Arjun Bhasin’s costumes, which are attuned not just to queer fashions of the era but also in what these characters can afford, and what flags as gay without looking caricaturish. Lee wears button-ups and sweaters that look like a protective shell, even finding pajamas and a robe that keep the trend up at night, while Jack enjoys his leather coats and sharp sunglasses and colorful scarves, not wildly flamboyant in themselves but still more creative and flashy than any straight man would dare consider wearing. This goes just as much for the outfits of a prissy shop owner who’s cruel to Lee when she tries to sell him some old books, and the clothes that the patrons and owners of so many bars and bookstores wear in these tucked-away spaces. It’s in the “Silence is Death” ACT-UP poster on the window near the entrance of Julius’ bar, the flat, saturated colors of black, white, and pink forcing our attention in the mostly unadorned bar even if it’s never foregrounded in a shot. My midwestern ass had no prior knowledge of how significant Julius’ was and is as a historically queer bar, only reading about it after the fact, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? is able to casually evokes Julius’ as a low key queer hangout without turning campy. It’s in the way Jack spends all the money he gets from his cut of Lee’s payment on bleaching his teeth because “it’s one of the most obvious signs”, in the beat of silence after he tells Lee he cannot blab to anyone about her crimes because “all my friends are dead” with the casualness of someone who’s had to accept this some time ago, and the way his devil-may-care attitude takes on a more somber texture once he needs a cane to walk and his meds make alcohol taste like mouthwash. It’s in the way Lee is only able to loosen up posing as dead, closeted writers she wishes she could’ve met, or  the way she gets so uncommonly sweet yet profoundly self conscious when she gets dinner with Anna, an event that both parties may be reticent to call a date, or at least a successful one. None of these artists are timid approaching the queerness of its characters and the people they adulate to a pretty astonishing degree, not just compared to other biopics like The Imitation Game but older, more political fare like Kiss of the Spider-Woman, which only seems to falter when directly addressing the men’s sexual chemistry. It’s stunningly open about its sexuality, recognizing how much this story is about The Gays without mistaking it as being About that or seeing it as peripheral.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is one of those great films that intersects beautifully as a valuable academic text, a biopic with bona fide historical fidelity instead of buried in asterisks, and a fucking great time. I’m equally enamored by it as a depiction of queer friendship and as an avenue for so many brilliant artists to tear into such a funny, smart, bitter, out-and-out Character of a woman. Melissa McCarthy gives a brilliantly detailed performance, one that fits into her repertoire of gruff, smarter-than-she-looks comic characters while also gracefully expanding her persona into new, unexpected avenues. playing Lee as a massively intelligent person who is terrified of exposing herself to a real human connection, using her caustic wit and outright cruelty as a form of self-defense. She manages to keep Lee’s bitterness a constantly simmering presence without overplaying it, or making it so high volume and indiscriminate that no one can tolerate even being near her, though the moment where she lashes out at the people in her life ring as genuinely lashing insults. We see the way she takes the compliments directed towards her forgeries as compliments about her skill as a writer, how her eyes light up when someone praises the singular, iconic, irreplicable voices of Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward as though they were really saying the name Lee Israel instead. It’s a fascinating portrait of a writer’s ego, someone who knows she’s not cuddly enough to get a pass on being a hermit but is equally aware that this behavior would be tolerable if she wasn’t an antisocial lesbian in her fifties, and pines – perhaps deludedly, especially as she gets deeper into impersonating these artists – for an era where the cream of the literary crop were jaded, witty gays instead of red-baiting fucks like Tom fucking Clancy.
Richard E. Grant is equally impressive as Lee’s friend/partner in crime Jack, connecting to a flamboyant personality without violating the more subdued tenor of the direction or McCarthy’s performance, and able to get so perfectly on the same wavelength as Lee we buy their friendship even as she’s put off by his vanity and scatterbrained nature and disarmed continuously by his lack of interest in the arts. Their friendship is sincere, both parties aware of how rare it is that someone in their lives is not just putting up with them but actively seeking their company for this long, even when he abuses her trust or she throws a harsher barb than necessary. But Grant also foregrounds Jack’s affability, low-time street smart, and pretty boy charisma, playing the kind of guy who seems like he’s been getting by for decades committing petty crimes and sleeping other people’s couches. To a one, Heller does a remarkable job with the film’s entire ensemble, making sure the actors portraying the various booksellers Lee cons come off as credible, studied figures, ultimately reinforcing the quality of her forgeries by portraying her buyers as legitimate historians instead of dupes that any hack could fool. Jane Curtain, Marc Evan Jackson, Ben Falcone, and Anna Deavere Smith all make strong impressions with only one or two scenes, though best of all the film’s tertiary characters is Dolly Wells as Anna, giving the kind of quiet, luminous performance any film would kill to have. Like Carmen Ejogo in Roman J. Israel Esq. – to include their best scenes taking place when their characters go out on a dinner not-quite-date with their leading player –  Wells is able to fill in an extraordinary amount of backstory that individualizes Anna while refracting ideas about Lee that we may not have necessarily thought until now. The two talk about Fanny Brice like kindred souls, providing Lee the kind of connection she desperately needs but never comfortably believes she deserves, not least because she’s also stealing from such an admiring, kind-hearted person. Wells creates a sweet, specific person whose scenes help illuminate new facets of Lee’s character and McCarthy’s performance while complicating the scenes she’s in. What more could you want?

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