CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?
As we move through this second-most Academy-centric of months, we arrive upon Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a better class of would-be Oscarbait True Story: one with a strong hook (crime) and a strong aesthetic (brown), but which only uses those things as a starting point to get to what it's really after, namely one of 2018's better character studies, as offered by way of one of 2018's strongest (if not wholly surprising) lead performances.
Directed by Marielle Heller
Written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (based on the book by Lee Israel)
With Melissa McCarthy (Lee Israel), Richard E. Grant (Jack Hock), Dolly Wells (Anna), and Jane Curtin (Marjorie)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? confirms what I've suspected since Bridesmaids, way back in 2011, which is that Melissa McCarthy is an actor who pursued comedy, and was sometimes good at it, but was built for drama. In that film, which people like for reasons unfathomable to me (it's shaggy, unfunny, etc., in other words "a film by Paul Feig") she turned a tossed-off moment into its most unexpectedly good scene by adding real pathos and gravitas to what amounted to the stock bit in half the comedies ever made, in which a character you had no inkling was wise stops the movie cold to give the protagonist the talking-to they need. I've only made the occasional visit to McCarthyland since then. Most of them are Paul Feig films, and therefore have problems big and small, including McCarthy herself (either Ghostbusters or Spy is "the best," whereas the worst is unequivocally The Heat, an abomination). She's a great Sean Spicer though. Remember that knucklehead? Meanwhile, there have been many other things—including a try or two at dramatic roles—though I've been fine with missing them.
Maybe that was a mistake, maybe it wasn't, but that changes little in the here and now of Forgive Me?, which is a marriage of comic persona to dramatic role of the same kind that Jim Carrey pulled off back in the 20th century, when he went from doing broad stupid mugging in service of getting laughs to doing broad stupid mugging in service of something more, with The Truman Show and Man on the Moon. McCarthy can do broad stupid mugging—oh, boy, can she—but the tools she's always used the most are deployed here with just enough differentiation for them to signify something else: the ways she can seem belligerent and self-deluded and just plain awful, without quite losing your sympathy, mostly through the simple trick of those sad round eyes of hers. In a comedy, the trick's as likely to be horrid as funny; in a drama, though, at least in a well-built drama like Forgive Me?, where it's supposed to be horrid, it's great.
The belligerent, self-deluded, and awful woman McCarthy plays this time is Lee Israel, and if you are a person of letters (I am not), you may recognize that name as the author of a string of successful biographical profiles about famous women in the 70s and 80s, who has, as of 1991, been stricken low with a deadly combo of writer's block, alcoholism, grunt-labor in some manner of office job that she gets her ass justifiably fired from in the very first scene, and, of course, the kind of declining literary heat that's turned her from an asset for her agent, Marjorie, to a pure burden. These days, they barely speak. Marjorie only invites her by obligation to her literati parties, and is surprised when she actually shows up; Marjorie is less surprised when Lee turns out to have done so solely to yell at Marjorie for not returning her calls (and, since that works out about as well as you'd expect, to steal toilet paper from her bathroom, then steal some other guest's coat). Lee's a piece of work, it's fair to say: harried, literally living in her own filth, constantly drunk, and capable of showing affection to nobody except an aging, sick cat that seems almost as depressed as she is. It's not even clear if this was what happened after her career and her last relationship collapsed, or if this has simply been who she always was.
Though it's not exactly, you know, unclear.
She finds a partner in dissolution by chance—presumably this happened in real life, though it's also a convenient way for the movie to give the misanthrope someone to talk to and collude with—when she runs into an old acquaintance, Jack Hock, a caddish British queen getting way too old to still act the way he does, and whose claim to Lee's memory was the time he got drunk and pissed in somebody's closet during a party. They discover that they can tolerate and co-depend on one another, and one could suppose that this makes them friends, at least functionally speaking. But none of this makes Lee less grindingly poor, and in the process of parting with a treasured memento, a handwritten letter from Katharine Hepburn, Lee discovers that such ephemeral tokens are worth real money; when she finds a typewritten letter hidden away in a library book during the course of her research on a new biography, she realizes even these can be sold to somebody. And that's when she hatches a scheme so zany it just might work: combining her skills as a biographer with her ownership of several typewriters and what turns out to be an almost-willfully-naive market for literary keepsakes, she can forge personal correspondence in the style of practically anybody whose style was worth forging, and soon her financial worries will be over. Unfortunately, this is really only when her troubles begin.
Thus Forgive Me? is one very low-key, very low-stakes, very unlikely caper film, but, as in any crime movie, when Lee finds herself in a hole of her own making, her first resort is to keep digging, and while it's maybe the third or fourth thing on Forgive Me?'s mind, it offers a gratifying look at Lee's process, from the forging to the fraud. It even winds up with the proverbial One Last Job, upon which hangs an incredibly small-scale thriller setpiece in the hallowed halls of Yale.
It's also an anthropological film, of sorts—ironically, given the reclusiveness of its protagonist—concerned with one very particular time (the early 1990s) in one very particular place (Manhattan) and for one very, very particular slice of society (upper-class twits who care about books and, even more particularly, literary memorabilia). Indeed, the chief method by which Lee retains your sympathy is the target of her grift: she's only screwing people who would willingly screw themselves and society by spending hundreds or thousands of dollars on some dead person's trash. It's kind of hard not to enjoy watching these marks get burned, then—or at least, it's enjoyable until it isn't. In the same vein, however, there's a brilliantly blood-curdling bit at Marjorie's party where Tom Clancy, of all people, holds court on his process, and Lee looks like she's going to either punch him, or puke—it could be any pompous shithead writer, honestly, and yet it's not incidental that it's Clancy, an avatar of everything Lee hates in the world. But when Lee complains, Marjorie doesn't have any reason not to tell her the truth: Clancy can talk like a shithead, and Clancy gets a three million dollar advance when Lee can't get a penny, because Clancy writes things people want to read. "You can be an asshole when you're famous," Marjorie says, but the thing is, on a scale of "actually nice" to "Lee Israel," Clancy isn't even an asshole.
And that's what Forgive Me? is: Lee Israel being a total asshole. She's an asshole in the poisoned buddy comedy she shares with Jack, who eventually becomes her mule when the heat starts to bear down; she's an asshole to Anna, the sensitive, sweet woman at the memorabilia store with whom she sparks a cautious and doomed courtship, and who actually loves Lee's books. There's a moment between those two that's heartbreaking, because it's the first moment you see on Lee's face—that is, on McCarthy's face—something other than anger, hate, fear, disgust, or mere sadness. It's where the title of the film gets dropped, and though the words Lee wrote have a much different context for Lee than they do for the woman quoting them, the answer is probably "no." The film is not, is never, about Lee learning how not to be an asshole; I have no idea if that ever happened in her lifetime, and the movie, wisely sticking to its one story, is not committed to that kind of scope. The film is simply about Lee recognizing that she's an asshole, and not knowing, precisely, what she can do with that information, given the limited options for not being an asshole available to her.
Forgive Me? wallows alongside its subject: it judges her, harshly, but doesn't despise her, nor fail to understand her. McCarthy, especially, does not fail to understand her. Lee's a wash-up, in her own eyes and in everyone else's, someone who did make it, and now can't come to terms with being treated like an almost-was. The only reason monetary value is attached to the missives she writes is because they're attached to the fame she never quite attained for herself; when she thinks on it, that's all her biography career was, too. And so what started as survival becomes an act of vengeance, first against everybody else, then against herself. McCarthy's performance is driven by this evocation of pure omnidirectional hatred, starting with the physical—the worn-out carriage, a face that looks just mean, the hollow, naked desperation, the really bad haircut—and continuing on through every word she utters, every gesture she makes, every scotch and soda she downs, and every insult she spits. Even Jack doesn't even really like her very much: informed of her scam, you'd think he, of all people, would appreciate sticking it to the squares. But Richard E. Grant's performance is another essential one, his Jack condescending and parasitic at the same time he offers symbiosis. He rolls his eyes and the only reason he ever gives to trust him is that he puts up with her.
Forgive Me? gives Lee a world to match her mood: I have not mentioned director Marielle Heller, though Heller is surely as important as anyone else; unlike some directors, Heller hasn't just handed McCarthy a(n outline of a) script, parked a camera, and left her to act. And even if nothing else made Forgive Me? worth seeing, it'd be a fascinating exercise in watching a director drain her whole spleen before sitting down to do her Tom Hanks vehicle; Heller's Fred Rogers biopic is due next year, and I'm obviously interested, yet am in no sense sure that it'll be as good.
Also, if that's not enough, it's got Jane Curtin in it!
Heller and cinematographer Brandon Trost paint Lee's psychology onto their film, their lighting schemes tending toward a kind of warmth, set against a New York winter. It seems like it ought to be cozy, but the light's just too damned yellow—piss-yellow—and the shadows too brown, for this world to feel like it's anything other than just stained. Shots are mounted with inordinately shallow focus that half the time winds up reducing anyone who's not McCarthy into a yellow-and-brown background blob, which is more-or-less how Lee feels about them, anyway. And if sometimes Heller and Trost don't know exactly what to do with the negative space that tends to inhere to character dramas in a 'Scope ratio, I've never actually minded negative space much; at least editor Anne McCabe knows how to balance such images in time.
Heller doesn't waste McCarthy as a comedian, either. But the laughs they get together always serve her character, and those laughs are so bitter and cruel toward Lee's milieu and toward Lee herself that they tend to stick in your throat. (The most laugh-out-loud funny thing in the movie is a pre-credits title card: a bit about how Nora Ephron filed a restraining order against Lee to get her to stop crank-calling people pretending to be her. Now, they never come right out and say it, but Lee definitely had some kind of undiagnosed mental illness.) All in all, it's a remarkably successful biopic, remarkable in that it's successful at all, but even moreso: it's a small triumph of its form.