Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, Jennifer Westfeldt, Christian Navarro, Stephen Spinella, Julie Ann Emery

Director: Marielle Heller

107 mins

Considering how aggressive contemporary American films are these days in making sure that the main characters are as likeable as can be, even when such an approach is inappropriate at best, Can You Ever Forgive Me? offers a positively radical approach, for instead of trying to create a false sense of sympathy, this inventive and highly entertaining biopic of writer Lee Israel is more concerned with presenting its central character as she is, warts and all, and then trying to get viewers to empathise with her and her frequently poor choices and what drives her to such behaviour in the first place. Aided in large part by a first-rate performance by Melissa McCarthy that is unquestionably her finest work to date, the film does just that and the result is an uncommonly fascinating character study of the kind of person that most people pray that they never come into contact with. Israel (McCarthy), was an American writer who worked through the 1970s and 1980s as a freelance journalist and as the biographer of such subjects as Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen and Estee Lauder. When the film opens, alas, it is the 1990s and her career has long since hit the skids—her ability to subsume her own voice for those of her subjects means that her name means nothing to the buying public, and her insistence on writing about obscure subjects of dubious commercial value means that no publisher is willing to cough up even a modest advance for a new book. Compounding her problems is the fact that she is a decidedly antisocial type who drinks like a thirsty fish all day/every day, seems to go out of her way to antagonise people in the most self-destructive ways imaginable, has no realistic sense of what the current book-buying audience might want - and only seems comfortable when she retires to the decrepit dive that she shares with her ageing cat.

One day, while Lee is poring through some old books, she finds a couple of letters written to their previous owner by comedienne, singer and actress Fanny Brice. In desperate need of quick cash, Lee grabs the letters for herself and takes one to a local bookstore to sell, as there is a burgeoning market for such memorabilia. She gets a few dollars for it, but is advised that it might have been worth more if the content of the letter had been a little more exciting. While struggling to make headway with her Brice biography, Lee impulsively takes another one of the letters—one as bland as the previous one—and slides it into her typewriter in order to zip it up by adding a funny postscript. She takes this ersatz missive to the same store and gets a much better price for it, primarily because of that postscript. Duly inspired, Lee begins forging entire letters from long-dead writers. At first, her ruse is a success, but when questions start to crop up about the validity of the letters she is selling, she finds herself going to increasingly desperate lengths to keep things going for as long as possible before the whole house of cards collapses.

The ability to generate a certain degree of empathy for Israel despite her prickly and resoundingly anti-social nature is due in no small part to the outstanding performance by McCarthy. Since she gained screen prominence, my own feelings towards her as an actress have been about her occupying a fine line being between amusingly obnoxious and abrasively obnoxious. Here, however, she handles all the nuances beautifully in ways that retain the character’s essential prickliness, while still finding traces of the lost and lonely person behind the booze and bitterness and the constant aroma of cat shit around her home. She also strikes up a winning on-screen rapport with the brilliant Richard E. Grant, who plays an old acquaintance, one even more down on his luck than Lee and who is still trying to coast through life on nothing more than his charm, whom she takes in and enlists to help her with her scam, sadly with disastrous results. Although their characters have no romantic designs on each other at all, the two actors present a more convincing display of on-screen chemistry than most love stories of recent vintage. The film is a smart and cutting work showing that although Lee Israel may have been a dreadful person in many ways, her story certainly makes for a compelling and hugely enjoyable film.