Actress Melissa McCarthy, who limits herself to playing obnoxious slobs for clownish effect, finally gets a role that takes those sociopathic tendencies seriously in Can You Ever Forgive Me? It’s about Lee Israel, the late New York–based writer who was convicted for creating forgeries of celebrities’ private letters and selling them on the collectibles market. But the movie is really about a species of American reprobate that is prominent in New York literary and media society. It would be a cautionary tale if it wasn’t also damnably sentimental in the peculiar vein of media accounts that seek to justify the behavior of a particular professional class and its favored types.
McCarthy’s Israel irritates one’s nerves like a Seinfeld character whose buffoonishness is used for dramatic and pathetic effect. The ruse that the Seinfeld sitcom was “about nothing” cannily protected the show’s creators, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, from admitting that the series was, specifically, an exposé of self-centered behavior by clannish yuppies who rightfully ended up in jail at the end of nine seasons. The makers of Can You Ever Forgive Me? lean toward the self-justification that defends inexcusable actions the way politicians and pundits do. The movie, though set in the 1990s, is a perverse mirror of the millennium’s immorality. That’s how McCarthy can play this role using the same straight face with which she has conducted a career exploiting the female misbehavior and slatternliness that ought to be a scandal for the #MeToo era.
Israel sneers at others, drinks to excess at a temporary job, lives in filth with her cat, steals toilet paper and a coat belonging to another guest at a party, and yet still thinks herself sinned-against. She’s a Seinfeld harridan sentimentalized through the strange degeneracy that has become part of modern culture. Director Marielle Heller gives a somber, forlorn tone to the screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, setting Israel’s horror story in the scotch-soaked ambience of déclassé nightclubs and of dive bars visited on overcast mornings. While disinfecting the criminal atmosphere with Billie Holiday (“I’ll Be Seeing You”) and Blossom Dearie (“Charade”), Holofcener and Whitty are sensitive to the everyday degeneracy that is the reality of New York media circles, with their unwashed, unrepentant strivers.
The seedy and the literary (the low class and the snobbish) make for a real if rarely recognized combination. Heller, Holofcener, and Whitty show a late generation’s permissiveness. They also partake of Israel’s celebrity-biography specialty. (She published books on Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder, and then her career failed.) Israel’s genre derived from a homosexual subculture in which writers’ personal desires are projected through professional means. The genre often reveals envious idolatry (as in Israel’s jealousy and her attraction for a young female bookseller), and that class antagonism is the movie’s real theme. Douglas McGrath dealt with it in Infamous (the best Truman Capote film), and Alan Bates gave a memorably moving performance of gay isolation in We Think the World of You, a dramatization of J. R. Ackerley’s fictionalized memoir.
McCarthy’s Israel is described as “a horrid c***” by the only person who has not abandoned her, fleeing for their own sanity. This “friend,” Jack (a British wastrel played by Richard E. Grant), was enlisted to join Israel’s criminal scheme while indulging his own petty drug-dealing and sex hustling. Companions to each other’s faults, they have a precarious friendship, lent a bottom-of-the-barrel poignancy that nearly compensates for the fact that the film lacks any overall sense of justice prevailing in Israel’s case. (The judge’s leniency overlooks that the amount of Israel’s deception should have constituted grand larceny.) Instead, Israel is left to the mess of herself. And we’re left to the mess of an amoral film era.
Using Paul Simon’s “Can’t Run But” as a motif late in the film, the makers of Can You Ever Forgive Me? ask forgiveness for human weakness but also for the culture’s criminal tendencies they’ve witnessed. Will Melissa McCarthy apply her moral sloth to Christine Blasey Ford next?