"If you ever forgive me?" Biographer-turned-fraudster Lee Israel asked, first as Dorothy Parker and then as herself in a tell-all autobiography detailing how she faked notable literary letters for profit.
Marielle Heller's movie Israeli's memoir asks the same question, a plaintive call for absolution in the face of wrongdoing. Down on her luck in 1990s New York, Israel set up an elaborate operation forging famous correspondence from the likes of Parker, Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich and more. On paper, the deed seems unforgivable.
"Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
When the film introduces Israel, author once on the bestseller list, she's on a downslide, having been unceremoniously dismissed from a desk job at work and cussing out her co-workers. Why she has not returned her calls, only to leave early and swipe a coat on her way out. She brushes away from the car in the morning.
When she finally gets into her agent's office ̵
"Give me a fucking break!" McCarthy-as-Israel responds in a hallmark pottymouth.
And so begins Israel's life of crime. Katharine Hepburn kisses her. That, along with a serendipitous original letter from vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice found during a research session, sparks an idea: She could write these letters.
Fanny Brice letter, no further details from this entry Noel Coward. Soon, it becomes a full-fledged affair, complete with fabricated stationery and vintage typewriter. Along the way, she befriends Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) – a debonair, coke-snorting scoundrel just as lonely as her- and eventually ropes him into her scheme.
McCarthy transforms completely into Israel's mop-topped, irascible persona, preserving the humanity of a person who could have easily become a caricature. The role still allows to be physical and comedic, but in a subtler way than the generic "insert Melissa McCarthy here" blockbusters she's often tasked with carrying. It's unsurprising there's an Oscar for you already.
Israel should not be a likable hero, but she'll become one anyway. During the past year, Israel's seemingly tame. All she wants, after all, is to pay back and get some meds.
Israel's whole scheme is a middle-finger to the literary establishment, she is only planning to spend it on groceries and the roof over her head.
the circles of fur coat wearers and tom clancy suck-ups she finds herself distinctly apart from. Like a little scrupulous Robin Hood, she's robbing the rich to pay herself.
Israel calls back pretending to be Nora Ephron and gets patched through immediately. She keeps up the charade for a moment longer, before shouting "Starfucker!" It's pure joy to see her with the types who would reject her otherwise.
Even the fraud itself is born of a relatable problem: impostor syndrome. Israel's never felt like a writer, she confesses. Despite her success as a biographer, she can not tell her own story; it's safer to inhabit others' worlds than to confront their own. For anyone whose livelihood is akin to a self-identity, it's easy to understand this plight;
In the end, the film does not release Israel entirely off the hook. They are not without emotional cost, never mind the financial. Fanny Brice letter is quashed as soon as Israel's misdeeds are made public. She'll take a look at her apartment while she's out of town – a betrayal from which Hock never recovers.
At the end of the film, however, when Israel is sipping down a drink instead of attending a court-designated AA meeting, it's hard not to laugh.
In real life, Israel published "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" In 2008 – which she hilariously brought to her publisher "amid" Memoirgate, "what she called it, when the publishing industry was skittish about" true "stories after James Frey's bestselling
But in her case, she said, everything she wrote was what actually happened. In the memoir, they made a letter of hers peddled by Noël Coward that made it into a biography about the playwright a year prior – something Israel called "a big hoot and a terrific compliment"
In many ways, so is the movie.
"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is in theaters on Friday.