The title for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, shared with the Lee Israel memoir from which it is adapted, may be a quote attributed to famed writer Dorothy Parker. Or, it could be a complete fabrication derived from Israel’s imagination, as she chose Parker as one of the inspirations for forged letters, which she sold to collectors under the guise of authenticity. So adept at forgery was Israel that she claimed she was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.
Though she started forging these letters for money, the whole enterprise is an exercise in the lengths to which people will go for success and admiration. Israel (Melissa McCarthy) had been a successful biographer, but became so overcome with anxiety that she fell into a permanent state of writers’ block. She confesses in the film that she doesn’t find herself very interesting, and so she plays Cyrano for herself: using her words and wit to impersonate those who already have success and admiration.
Israel’s relationship to the writing community is fraught; she doesn’t play the game but still wants recognition for showing up. Her wryness, smarter-than-thou resentment, and general misanthropy are the oil to the water of those donning turtlenecks and pronouncing the “bra” in “macabre” at book parties. “Oh, to be a while male who doesn’t know he’s full of crap,” she laments at Tom Clancy’s prosperity while wallowing in her lack of it.
But it’s unclear why she even wants to be a part of this world. The critique of the world of literary letters is the film’s most fruitful and least explored theme as it applies to Israel’s life. There’s a strong sense that buyers and collectors believe only what they want to believe; that the finding and possession of letters from famous writers grants them access to an elite world that they’d otherwise have no access to. Their pretentiousness comes from a desire to co-opt the fame not of others’ work but of their lives, and to claim ownership over a small slice of history.
And isn’t this exactly what Israel is doing in her forgeries? We see what she does, but not how she feels: in the act of forgery, pawning off her work then spending the money she got for it, but rarely any sense of pride or accomplishment, however twisted it may have been. Israel doesn’t have anything to prove to anyone, and seems to only be doing this for money, though we know that that’s not wholly true. The film acts as Israel would in this way: it purposefully doesn’t show us her inner thoughts and keeps her innermost self secret.
Though it can be argued that withholding Israel’s motivations is meant to maintain Israel’s air of enigma. Can You Ever Forgive Me? establishes Israel as someone with loose moral standing from the beginning, as we witness her stealing a coat from a party out of spite. Her frequent alcohol-induced benders result in her losing her job and causing undue harm to others. That McCarthy plays her with the fearful distrust of an abused dog creates a distinct relationship between viewer and subject: she’s a protagonist that begs to be sympathized with but doesn’t command it.
With very little backstory, Israel is presented as a character full of flaws with little in the way of redeemable qualities, and impressively, the film doesn’t provide Israel an excuse for her behavior. As far as we’re aware, she didn’t have a difficult childhood, she wasn’t abused in her past or present, or allowed any other cop-out for an anti-hero, and yet she’s allowed to act as badly as she will. The movie makes no attempt to redeem her personality or behavior because it understands that it doesn’t have to. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is perhaps the only piece of film since the television show Girls that not only allows but embraces its leading woman to be insufferable and unpresentable and filthy. Israel apologies for her actions but not for who she is.
At her own admission, Israel confesses that by committing herself to forgeries gave her a way out of doing real work. Actual writing meant, she said, “opening myself up to criticism, and I’m too much of a coward to do that.” This resolution offers a refreshing sense of ownership, though her spiky personality keeps her redeemability forever in question. Israel finds herself without losing herself, however unpleasant that self may be.