Can You Ever Forgive Me?

A lovely movie about snarky miserable loners, real good for November coat weather. Alcoholic incorrigible middle aged gays become tentative friends and shabby book-world fraudsters in 1991 New York City, starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard Grant as the churlish wlw/mlm solidarity pair of the season. Based on the memoir by writer Lee Israel herself about the true time she ran out of money and hope and started scamming collectors with fake letters from literary luminaries, and the English bar drifter she met along the way. This movie paints a really affecting portrait of down-trodden struggle and loneliness, but the bitter, tea-colored fog is mellowed with a dollop of grim sweetness from the story of two people discovering it’s better to be cranky together, and that sometimes you don’t realize you’ve made something good until you’re well past the middle of it, and on the run from the law.

One thing I really love about this movie is how the priorities and point-of-view are crafted with such a sure, gentle hand. Director Marielle Heller and her screenwriting team of Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, another woman and a gay man, have made something not flashy enough to be getting called feminist (and that’s an interesting realization) but simply is, as a movie that centers the experiences of a Jewish lesbian where the aspects of her identity aren’t the plot, they’re just who she is. The sole moment that touches politics, in the policy sense, is when Jack blithely mentions to Lee that all his friends are dead, and you’re struck with the reality of the date. 1991. Angels In America would have premiered this same year.

With similar grace, Can You Ever Forgive Me? builds a number of rounded, nuanced theses about authenticity, notoriety, the public view of private figures, and whether brilliant imitation is simply hiding your own light, or providing valuable illumination that the world wouldn’t otherwise get. There’s a scene that encapsulates much of this — even including the goddamn titular line but still not feeling like you’re being knocked over the head with anything (this movie is wonderfully done) — in which a tall, dear, Sally Hawkins-esque bookseller quotes a Dorothy Parker line to Lee, that Lee wrote herself. And what can she say? In this moment she takes the option of saying nothing, and becomes in one moment a little more famous, and a little more alone.


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