Lee Israel, the celebrity biographer and sometime document forger played to perfection by Melissa McCarthy in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, has a lot in common with Dorothy Parker, the Jazz Age poet, essayist, and wit whose writerly voice Lee impersonates in fake letters. She’s an unrepentant drunk with a savagely caustic sense of humor, a romantic and a cynic in equal measure, a perpetually broke and heartbroken underachiever who can manipulate the written word far more skillfully than she can manage her own life. But Lee, unlike Dorothy, has no Hollywood screenwriting prospects or roundtables of glamorous friends to amuse. At 51, she’s just lost an already inglorious job as a late-night copy editor, and her snippy agent (Jane Curtin) won’t even hear out her new idea for a Fanny Brice bio. Lee is grumpy, anti-social, self-absorbed, and a generally unpleasant person to be around. Her apartment smells awful, thanks both to her lax housekeeping habits and her old, sick cat, the only creature with whom she interacts regularly.
If that doesn’t sound like the description of someone you’d want to spend two hours with, you underestimate the artistry of both McCarthy and Heller, who’s 39 and directing her second movie—the first, 2015’s The Diary of a Teenage Girl, was also a spiky, note-perfect adaptation of an already excellent book. (This film is based on Lee Israel’s memoir of the same title.) In their hands—and those of co-screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty—Lee is one of the most perversely winning anti-heroines in recent memory, a selfish, boozing liar who nonetheless becomes someone we care about deeply and even, in a strange way, respect.
Her brief but heady career as a forger of literary documents begins semi-innocently when she finds a real letter from Brice (the Jewish comedienne and vaudeville star whose life inspired the musical Funny Girl) folded into a long-unopened library book. She nabs it to sell it to a rare books dealer, who informs her the letter would have been worth more if the content were a little punchier. Thus begins Operation Punch-up: The next time Lee encounters a potentially valuable letter in her research, she takes it home, rolls it into her typewriter (the movie begins in 1991) and adds a wisecracking postscript. The altered document fetches a better price, and it’s a slippery slope from doctoring existing letters to making new ones up wholesale. Lee goes so far as to buy dedicated vintage typewriters for each author she impersonates, and even has stationery made up for Dorothy Parker, who along with Noël Coward becomes one of her specialties.
Eventually partnering with Lee in this scam is Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an aging rascal-about-town who’s fallen on even harder times than she has. During their afternoon drinking sessions at a gay bar—he’s out and promiscuous, she’s semicloseted and hasn’t been in a relationship in years—she tipsily brags about her scheme. Later, as the odds of her getting caught grow nerve-wrackingly high, she uses him as a front to sell the goods at high-end bookshops: With his plummy English accent and just-gone-to-seed good looks, the thoroughly unliterary Jack is ideal for the role.
One of the things I loved about Can You Ever Forgive Me?—aside from the radiantly perfect casting of McCarthy and Grant, a Withnail and I–esque pair of drinking buddies, except this time they’re both asocial, hilarious Withnails—was Heller’s quiet confidence in establishing the milieu where all this typing and lying took place. There’s no snappy montage to explain to us how the rare documents trade usually functions, no wiseacre secondary character who sits down with Lee to explain the process to her (and, condescendingly, us). Our resourcefully sneaky heroine improvises her forgery business as she goes along, based on what she learns from each attempted sale; in the same way, the audience is left to gather the basics from the impeccably observed details of each interaction. I have no idea how the gray market in rare documents worked in Manhattan in 1991 (though it looks like the city had some pretty sweet bookstores), but I believe in every scene Heller sets in that world. That goes double for those involving a shy bookstore owner and would-be fiction writer (Doll & Em’s Dolly Wells) who buys some of Lee’s fake letters, then befriends her and nervously asks for feedback on one of her stories. A short dinner scene, in which the two women seem to be flirting until Lee subtly but definitively withdraws, tells us more about the main character’s emotional stuntedness and compulsive self-sabotage than a page-long monologue could.
“I was born 30 years too late,” says Lee at an antique book fair, bonding with a fellow old-stuff aficionado even as she sizes her up for scamming purposes. Can You Ever Forgive Me?—the title is a line from one of the Dorothy Parker letters Lee forges, an apology for a night of drunken misbehavior—isn’t a nostalgic movie. It doesn’t fall into the trap of romanticizing either the early 20th century era its protagonist longs for or the late 20th century one she lives in. But there are touches that hark back, sometimes with wistful irony, to an earlier time: the warm jazz vocals of Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday on the soundtrack, a montage of neon bar signs dissolving into one another to sum up a long night on the town.
If you’re looking for a crime thriller with high-speed car chases or goons threatening to break the protagonist’s knees, this isn’t your movie. The stakes remain limited to whether, and for how long, this particular woman can keep pulling off this particular high-end con, and given that her memoir somehow got written and a movie of it made, we know the clock’s ticking until she gets caught. (In that way, this movie resembles Shattered Glass, a 2003 biopic about serial fabricator Stephen Glass that’s like a horror film pitched only to journalists.*) But Can You Ever Forgive Me? is about more than just suspense. With keen and often funny insight, Holofcener and Whitty’s script explores the internalized self-hatred of early ’90s queer culture and the push-pull dynamics of toxic friendships. A late scene in which Lee finally begins to reckon with the meaning of her short but spectacular career as a forger becomes a moving expression of the way taking pride in one’s work can give a life meaning, even if the work in question is of dubious legality. Most of all, this is a portrait of a difficult, brilliant, extravagantly imperfect woman, someone it’s a delight if not a surprise to find a great clown like Melissa McCarthy had inside her all along.
Correction, Oct. 18, 2018: This article originally referred to former journalist Stephen Glass as a plagiarist. He was a serial fabricator.