A one-time bestselling author, Lee Israel’s (Melissa McCarthy) latest work was a commercial and critical disaster. It has left her with financial troubles, writer's block and alcoholism. Lee starts to sell off her possessions and realises that letters from bestselling authors can fetch a pretty price. Letters with interesting content sell for even more, so Lee starts editing and even forging letters from deceased writers and playwrights. Her pal Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) soon wants in. Things get increasingly complicated as the authorities catch wind of what Lee is up to.
Based on a true story, the setting of ‘Can You Forgive Me?’ is New York City, 1991. The film does a good job at portraying a more stripped back version of NYC than we’re used to seeing. This isn’t the glamourous Big Apple classically associated with the big screen, but a typical city where your average Joe works, resides and just about makes a living day-to-day.
As our lead and reject of the American dream, Melissa McCarthy is astounding. This is easily her best dramatic role to date. In spite of her capability of being quite unpleasant, you root for the character. All she knows is writing, but she’s stuck with writer’s block. Her financial woes include rent for a dingy apartment and owing the vet money just when the cat gets sick. You really do feel for her desperate situation.
Richard E. Grant makes the perfect on-screen ally for her. They play off each other well as the American and the Englishman with notions far above their station. Both are eccentrics, rejected by the literary world, and they are as fond of bitching about the past as they are of slagging one another off and making trouble.
The sad truth, however, is that both are better than the movie they find themselves in. While very enjoyable, it lacks vigour. Based on a memoir of less than 150 pages in length, there isn’t exactly a wealth of material to draw on. Every significant event of the source material is included, and the relationship between Lee and Jack is even expanded. Still, not a whole lot happens, and the film could have easily been packaged as a 90-minute feature. Then again, there are some great moments which couldn’t have been done away with, such as a scene between Israel and her agent (played by Jane Curtin) in which the latter hits her client with some home truths. She says you can be an asshole when you’re famous, but not until then.
There’s a romance plot between Israel and a book seller named Anna (Dolly Wells) that doesn’t really go anywhere. Its portrayal of the world of literary artefact collectors is interesting anyway. Tonally, the film is quite serious with are only a few moments of humour, and one wishes that given the crime caper nature of the story, a little more playfulness had been incorporated.