Midlife is not going well for Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy). She’s broke, she drinks too much, her cat is sick, and her books don’t sell; even her hair looks like a depressed ferret. She’s as clever as any writer out there, but she doesn’t know how to play the New York publishing game — schmoozing, making nice, not stealing toilet paper and shrimp canapés from her editor’s cocktail parties.
So, after stumbling into a happy accident at the public library, she decides to invent her own game: impersonating the private letters of famous, long-dead literary figures (Fanny Brice, Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker). Soon, her witty epistles are thrilling collectors and paying the rent — they’re just not technically hers. Also, they’re a federal crime.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?’s premise is so low-key outrageous, it would almost have to be true. And it is: a shaggy, endearingly dour portrait of the kind of true-life eccentric New York hardly seems to make anymore. Director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) flawlessly recreates the early-’90s Manhattan of Woody Allen and Seinfeld reruns, a leached-brown city of windy park benches, linoleum-countered diners, and cluttered apartments.
McCarthy tamps down her manic comic energy into a sort of squirrelly, quietly furious ball as a woman who desperately wants to connect, but can’t help hating everyone she meets. And her interplay with addled bon vivant Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), her fellow outcast and barfly, is fantastic; they’re two forever-square pegs, soaked in whiskey and bitchery.
If Can You Ever’s actual story feels slight, it’s worth staying just for the characters. Not only Jack and Lee, but the cynics, kooks, and loners who populate the rest of it: Lee’s crisply dismissive editor (Jane Curtin); the gawky, tender-hearted bookstore owner who tries to befriend her (Dolly Wells); a conga line of eager buyers and rent boys and FBI agents. The movie, like the real story, eventually doles out its consequences, but Heller never really judges; it’s always better to ask for forgiveness, after all, than permission. B+