Melissa McCarthy Masterfully Portrays Literary Forger in Biopic ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a sad but revealing look at a self-destructive, anti-social writer and the cat that loved her. It is based on the true-life story of celebrity forger and failed writer Lee Israel. The title, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” appears on a forged letter attributed to caustic screenwriter and poet Dorothy Parker, but in reality was written by the even more caustic Lee Israel.

Lee Israel wrote critically well-received biographies of significant women few in this present generation will remember. Her book on Dorothy Kilgallen did very well and appeared on the “New York Times” Best Seller list. After that, Israel began her long decent into obscurity.

In debt, out of work and unable to pay her cat’s vet bills, she turned to a different form of writing that was equally creative but illegal. She began to forge letters from famous but dead writers. And she was very good at channeling these personalities, creating convincing and well-crafted missives. She made a lot of money and then got caught.

The movie is based on the autobiographical book she wrote about 15 years later. Melissa McCarthy brings nuance to the unlikable Israel, a woman without (except for her cat) close friends or willing allies. Her story begins when she is fired. She begs her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) to find interest for her next biographical work on one more semi-forgotten woman. Marjorie spills the bitter truth: “No one is interested in another biography about Fanny Brice.” But tin-eared Israel persists until she can persists no longer.

By accident, she discovers the value of autographed letters, which become even more valuable when augmented by Israel. She finds that by adding a paragraph or two of clever prose to these letters, she increases their value. Not satisfied with that, she begins to write these letters from scratch while making a tidy sum in the meantime.

When suspicious autograph collectors begin to place suspicion on Israel, she turns to her only friend, the ne’er-do-well gay playboy Jack (Richard E. Grant), to front new sales to the same unsuspecting buyers that were previously bilked by her earlier forgeries. The FBI closes in, and she is brought to trial.

Along the way, Israel comes face to face with her failure as a social human being as well as a real writer.

It’s a different kind of role for the comic McCarthy. She excels as she brings empathy and foul language to her portrayal of Lee Israel and her portrayal is honest and appealing. Though Israel was the author of her own self-destruction, McCarthy portrays her with a rich humanity and a touch of humor.

Richard E. Grant, as Israel’s only human friend, adds a quirky energy to the film in his role as Jack, Israel’s only friend. Always holding on to the most positive of attitudes, he is often careless and betrays her trust. As the story advances, his up-beat portrayal becomes increasingly troubled as he faces first the FBI and then his own death.

Marielle Heller directed this haunting adaptation of Lee Israel’s book, filling it with lush cinematic evocations of the city of New York reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan.”

“Can You Forgive Me?” is a solid tale of empathy, the failure of talent and the need for human (and feline) interaction.

Can You Forgive Me?” opens Oct. 19 in select theaters.