Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Review: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

By Roger Ebert

For virtually every kind of human activity, there’s a subculture somewhere that fetishizes it and regards its doings as more precious than it really is. My things are movies and jalopies; other people are into tattoos or vintage furniture or what have you.

If you’re ever tempted to scoff at somebody else’s little obsessions, remember that they might find yours laughable, too.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a smart and sensitive comedy that’s as black as pitch. Melissa McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a formerly successful writer who’s hit the skids in 1991 at age 51. Unemployed and unable to pay her rent, she takes an old letter Katharine Hepburn penned to her -- she wrote a magazine profile of the actress in the 1960s -- down to a rare bookstore and sells it for some quick cash.

Lee soon realizes she has stumbled into the toniest of hobbyist communities: people who collect personal letters from celebrities. While researching a biography of stage comedienne Fanny Brice, she comes across a couple of routine letters, which she pilfers. The kindly owner of a tiny bookshop, Anna (Dolly Wells), offers $75 for one, saying it would be more if it weren’t so dull. You can practically see the light bulb popping up over Lee’s head.

She shunts the other Fanny letter into her typewriter and adds a hilarious P.S. in the actress’ voice; this time she gets $350. She’s off to the races.

Lee is, to use the nice word, a pill. McCarthy, known for her exuberant characters and winsome get-ups, seems to be practically drained of shape and color. All of Lee’s clothes look like bags, and her brown hair hangs like a carpet that has rarely seen a brush, or shampoo. She swears a lot, drinks even more, and yelling seems to be her default volume.

Her agent (a delicious Jane Curtain) explains that it would probably be best if Lee found some other line of work. She thinks she has. Soon Lee is cranking out ersatz letters from Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. She sets up an entire operation, buying vintage typewriters for each celebrity she’s impersonating.

Lee does her research and becomes very good at mimicking the literary stars’ voices. Top dealers are clamoring for more. Rather than being wracked with guilt, Lee realizes she’s doing the best writing of her life.

Her drinking buddy and eventual partner is Jack Hock -- was there ever a more fitting name? -- a British scallywag played with great glee by Richard E. Grant. An aging queen who never wants the party to end, he’s basically spent his whole life grifting in one way or another. When questions about some of Lee’s letters force her to stop selling them herself, she finds that Jack gets even higher prices through his twinkly schmoozing.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me” is based on Israel’s own memoir, adapted for the screen by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, directed by Marielle Heller. It works on a lot of levels, but is best as a character study of a thoroughly unlikable person.

McCarthy and the filmmakers don’t attempt to smooth down Lee’s rough ages. Here is a woman who was all rough edges. She’s been pushed around and beat down all her life, and her reaction is to push back and punch back. We may not like Lee -- hardly anyone does -- but we find ourselves growing an odd sort of regard for her.

When she’s finally caught -- no spoilers here; there wouldn’t be a book or movie without that -- Lee says that it’s probably been the happiest time of her life. People were paying good money for her words, even if they thought somebody else, somebody more noteworthy, was doing the writing.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could admire a wonderful piece of creativity without worrying whose name was attached to it?

**P.S. If you need me to tell you that Roger didn't really write this, then my pun has been for naught.**

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