The miracle is Melissa McCarthy, whose tortured portrait of disgraced celebrity author and convicted forger Lee Israel is the consummate performance of her career and the crowning achievement of her life. I have seen Can You Ever Forgive Me? twice, rubbing my eyes with astonishment and discovering something new and wonderful each time. This is my favorite film of 2018. Rex Reed, New York Observer
The thing is, film critic Rex Reed actually knew Lee Israel (1939-2014), the subject of Can You Ever Forgive Me? Below he summarizes her predicament, as presented both in her 2008 memoir subtitled Memoirs of a Literary Forger and this film:
Facing a mid-life career crisis fueled by writer’s block and the kind of boredom that drove her to a pattern of professional suicide, Lee was a drunk, a lesbian without love, and a cat lover who lived in filth without so much as a litter box for the droppings that piled up under her bed. Lonely and deeply in debt, with no tolerance for people, all of her old bridges burned behind her and no other skills to make a living, she starts going to parties to steal everything from rolls of toilet paper in the guest bathrooms to winter coats in the check room.
In addition, from Merryn Johns, Curve:
Even Israel’s own literary agent (Jane Curtin) detests her but nevertheless dispenses some sage advice at an elite Manhattan party: be nicer to people; write in your own voice—advice Israel dismisses to her own peril.
What the prickly Israel embarks on instead is a crime spree, “forging literary letters by prominent writers,” in partnership with gay friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), also an alcoholic. As Tracy E. Gilchrist (The Advocate) reports, this happened in Manhattan during the early years of an emerging health crisis in the community: “Jack, who would eventually die from AIDS-related complications in 1994, flippantly informs Lee early on in their friendship, ‘I haven’t got any friends, they’re all dead’.”
Essentially, notes Gilchrist, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is “a platonic love story between a gay man and a lesbian at a time when so many queer women answered the call to help their gay brothers.”
Many reviewers, though, emphasize the loneliness of the main characters:
Emily Yoshida, Vulture:
Loneliness, onscreen at least, tends to be a vibe, a #mood, a way of looking off into the distance as a certain kind of melancholy tune plays. In Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay, it’s a physical reality, a stench you live with until you are both used to it and loath to escape it.
Benjamin Lee, The Guardian:
It is rare to see a film led by two gay characters over the age of 50 and there is a specific friendship they share; both are implicitly aware of the alternate routes they have taken in life partly as a result of their sexuality and both more explicitly aware of the loneliness that now hangs over them.
Linda Holmes, NPR: “Israel is driven by a sense that the world should not treat her this way because it should not treat anyone this way, as if they are invisible, forgotten, unimportant.”
Watch the trailer below: