Can You Ever Forgive Me?, directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and starring a newly versatile and convincing Melissa McCarthy (Bridesmaids), tells a simple story, as unglamorous as the way its lead character lived her life.
Struggling biographer Lee Israel (McCarthy) is unpleasant as a cavity. She has high emotional walls and a self-destructive disposition, so vulnerable that we cannot help but root her on. Even as, in an early scene, she leaves her agent’s stuffy literary party early with a napkin filled with jumbo shrimp, stolen toilet paper, and a lifted winter jacket from the coat check, pretending “I lost my ticket. That one’s mine, right there.” Cringing, our heart skipping faster, we find ourselves wishing for her successful escape from the consequences.
And we only keep rooting. A one-time New York Times bestselling biographer, Israel’s fading career has left her desperate for money to keep a roof over her ailing cat’s black head—and she makes a single “wrong” choice that seemingly betters her circumstances, dramatically: While researching her next book project, a biography of the beloved vaudevillian Fanny Brice, she unearths in a library book authentic letters typewritten by her famous subject. Slipping the letters into her bag, she goes to have them valuated; told that the missives are too mundane to garner much money, she decides to embellish them. Morphing her own witty voice into the “author’s,” emulating the better-known writer, she make the letters’ contents more exciting. Realizing how easily this con comes to her, she begins forging entire letters from the likes of Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker.
Suddenly making more than enough for rent and cat antibiotics, Israel and her only friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a homeless British homosexual drug dealer with “sparkly blue eyes,” find joy in celebrating her stolen success. Until—as they do—things fall apart.
Bohemian and charming, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is understated, resisting the temptation to comment on issues of “right” and “wrong” with a baseless air of righteousness. Lee’s crimes are shown, but neither condemned or condoned. Her story is told plainly, with simple grace. And from this space of realness without judgment, the viewer sees a mirror: How organically, how utterly unremarkably, the junctures in our own lives arise. How one “immoral” action can become so much more than itself—not finite (as it seems, in the moment), but a new precedent.
In this way, the film can be illustrative, if not illuminating. The nature of our morality, it shows, is not fixed but disconcertingly flexible, our fates and stumbles not prewritten by any God-given personality, but rather always—and ongoingly—creations of the role we cast ourselves into in the stories we tell ourselves, of our pasts.
Thus, every choice Lee Israel makes in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, just as every choice in life, is in truth a forking road.