Friday, November 16, 2018


Directed by Marielle Heller, scripted by Nicole Holofcenor, starring Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel, Richard Grant as Jack Hock, and Dolly Wells as the bookstore owner.


Yes—“a pretty sordid and fabulous story” is what the New York Times said about real-life writer Lee Israel’s memoir of her days forging the signatures of celebrities such as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and Marlene Dietrich.

I could say the same thing about the new movie, CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?

Make no mistake about it, this is no cozy collection of beguiling eccentrics plying their fraudulent trade, but a shabby collection of people who feint, dodge, and barter for survival against the grime of the city and the loneliness and desperation of their lives. But at least they live in a New York City in the early 1990s, a poignant, vanished world where you can still find wonderful, independent bookstores and where writers still use pens and typewriters.

Melissa McCarthy’s “Lee Israel” and Richard Grant’s “Jack Hock” are willing, even enthusiastic malefactors. We find her at story’s beginning a down and out writer, an alcoholic with a sick cat, a smelly apartment, many bills to pay, and a readership no longer interested in her biographies of entertainment celebrities like Fanny Brice. (Hey, it’s 1991, years past the popularity of Hello, Dolly! From the late ‘60s.) And Jack Hock is a gay hustler just this side of homelessness, with scars to show from his latest tricks. Together, they form an improbable partnership that provides some of the best moments in this or any movie in recent memory. Granted, we already know Richard Grant as one of our finest dramatic actors. But McCarthy—well, who knew??? Hers is a finely nuanced portrayal of a sadly defiant woman who takes no prisoners.

At first, Lee’s forged letters are a profitable success. It’s one of the nicest ironies here that she can write wittier and more interesting letters by Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker than they could write themselves! Indeed, an even nicer irony is that Lee truly “finds” herself as a creative writer by impersonating other writers! But when autograph collectors get wise and set the Feds on her trail, she enlists Jack Hock to continue their nefarious trade while she stays out of sight.

Inevitably, disaster catches up with both of them. But if you expect Lee to appear before the judge crying real tears, you’re wrong. Her unrepentant speech--and McCarthy’s performance—belongs to the A-list Oscar performances this year. Similarly, Richard Grant’s performance as Jack Hock’s valedictory speech belongs to the ages.

Add CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME—the title comes from a Dorothy Parker quote—to the list of outstanding films over the years about forgers. Coming to mind are The Hoax and F Is for Fake, both about Clifford Irving, and Shattered Glass, about the exposure of a series of fraudulent articles in Vanity Fair. We live in strange times, after all, where collectors pay the big bucks for every scrap and scrawl of a celebrity autograph. We know full well many are faked—the sports world is particularly guilty of this sort of thing—but still we want to believe. Indeed, what is it about our own fascination with this sort of thing? Why are we so willing to suspend our disbelief? Why do we enjoy the illusions of stage magicians, knowing all the while we are being fooled? Or, most pertinent of all, why does the votership base of our President unswervingly support him, with his own bag of tricks on full display?

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