Celebrity biographer Lee Israel has faded into obscurity, and launches a brand new nefarious way to recapture her writing skills and make money, aided by her shady friend Jack Hock.
So there’s just no way around not giving away the sketchy actions Lee takes to get her head back above water, but before that, we get introduced to Lee herself in the form of Melissa McCarthy. Lee has almost nothing – no significant other, just her ancient cat Jersey; her apartment has a serious fly problem and she’s more than three months behind on rent; and her notoriety as a scabrous biographer of various celebrities has left her with a reputation the equivalent of a tabloid reporter dipped in doo-doo.
In her desperation to make money, Lee begins bringing her old books and several prized celebrity-reply letters to sell to collectors, as she comes across what for her must be a brilliant idea – fake her own celebrity reply letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and others, with the help of her flaming drug-selling friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant).
Jack, despite his foibles with drugs and pretty little gay boys, is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise very unhappy movie. Perhaps due to McCarthy’s previous film credits as a comedian, there are several apparently unintentionally funny moments sprinkled throughout the movie, but on the whole, ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is as unhappy as Lee herself.
Israel is portrayed as a rather unlikable person to begin with – she’s awkward and blunt, rude and uncaring, and quietly desperate in a way that manages to push away every single last person who tries to help her. The date with the lesbian bookseller goes nowhere, poor selfish Jack ends up letting dear Jersey die, and the FBI is beginning to close in on Lee’s little counterfeit letter racket. Though even facing potential jail time doesn’t seem to phase Lee, who gives a small speech in her own defense that seems more defiant than penitent.
The end of the film brings very little in the way of closure for Lee herself, though an encounter with a much-changed Jack seems to bring a small ray of hope and life back to Lee Israel. There’s very little in the way of remorse for her illegal actions, but the experience does certainly seem to have changed Lee, maybe even a small nudge in the ‘better’ category. An interesting choice for the opening night film of an international film festival.