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Comedy of errors for the fake news age

Celebrity biographer Lee Israel falls out of step with current tastes and turns her art form to deception in Can You EveForgive Me?

Trish Lee

Charlie Masters

trish.lee@newburynews.co.uk

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01635 886663

Comedy of errors for the fake news age

Can You Ever Forgive Me?(15)
Running time 1hr 46min
Rating: ****

LEE Israel made a name for herself in the ’70s and ’80s as an author of glossy celebrity biographies, yet even she was not immune to the pressures that so often scupper a promising literary career. Facing destitution, she began forging letters from late stars and writers (among them Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker); her life as a career criminal was documented in the memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?, upon which this ramshackle comedy is based. Once the dust has settled, it’s far from clear to whom the film’s title, derived from one of Israel’s forgeries, is addressed (Lee was, apparently, even more reclusive than this biopic makes her out to be). In part, this is because the picture makes for such an amusingly unrepentant account, less concerned with the forgeries themselves than with the protagonist’s personal woes and existential dramas.

As Lee herself remarks here, letters are a window into the author’s being – they allow a select few individuals a scrap of immortality. This woman’s misdeeds, the movie suggests, were driven by more than the spectre of poverty – the aging Israel hankered for a legacy, and her ‘art’, perversely, imbued her with the sense that she was leaving a permanent mark on the world. The immensely-talented Melissa McCarthy features as Lee. From the minute we are introduced to her, gurgling Scotch and telling her colleagues to eff off, it’s clear we’re not going to get along. She’s a boozer, a misanthrope and a literal cat lady (it’s the feline’s sickness that prompts her drift into delinquency). While Hollywood would typically string us along on a redemptive jaunt, Lee’s desire to make ends meet (and, of course, to be somebody) only leads her further downhill. To deem McCarthy’s a ‘warts-and-all’ portrait would be an understatement – she plays up Israel’s sheer gloominess to raucous effect, all wretched frowns and hateful glances. When she smiles, it’s in moments of self-contentment, mostly at the expense of other people (when she sells her first forgery; after stealing a woman’s coat at a dreadful writers’ bash). This isn’t somebody you’d want to spend a second around, yet her story is squalidly compelling, affectingly tragic and, yes, very funny. McCarthy realises Israel as a profoundly lost soul, an undeniably gifted person who has been cruelly wrenched from the gates of greatness; bitterness and frustration emanate from her in every single frame.

And Lee’s only one-half of an odd couple – the other comes in the waify form of Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), a coxcomb, wino and, of late, New York’s worst drug dealer. Whereas Israel braces for calamity in the face of triumph, Hock is a man who finds warmth and inspiration in the city’s darkest, coldest recesses. When Grant’s on-screen, the film feels very much like Withnail and I: The Twilight Years; it’s hard to see what binds this sordidly lovable buffoon to his pathologically anxious counterpart, but they share a corrosive sense of humour, a love of shoddy bars and an eloquence that transcends their sorry conditions. The movie flirts with the uncomfortable possibility that Hock is just another of Lee’s victims, roped into her narcissistic schemes just as they start to go bottom-up, yet it never treats it explicitly, missing a thematic open goal in the process. This is, however, but a minor quibble.

Melancholic and seedily enthralling, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a comedy of errors for the fake news age, if not one for the ages.

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