2018 Film Essays

Ballad of Lee Israel: Marielle Heller’s Excellent ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

The Diary of a Teenage Girl  director Marielle Heller beautifully translates another personal autobiography to excellent results with Can You Ever Forgive Me? The film is based on the confessional 2008 memoir of literary forger Lee Israel, and Heller’s movie pulls off the impressive feat of bringing visual urgency to the typically uncinematic process of writing. Heller’s cast is uniformly excellent, but her collaboration with central pair Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant will continue to attract attention throughout the remaining weeks of the award season. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is simultaneously suspenseful and laidback.

In her review, Katie Rife articulates the movie’s most impressive achievement. Rife says, “Maintaining an audience’s sympathy for a character through their most fumbling, frustrating lows requires compassion and clarity of purpose, both of which McCarthy amply demonstrates here.” The sentiment could just as easily extend to Heller’s deft handling, Grant’s irresponsible and tragic Jack Hock (who is by turns infuriating and vulnerable) and the sharp screenplay credited to Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. Holofcener was originally set to direct Julianne Moore in the principal role before personnel shifts rearranged the ultimate fate of the film.

Moore would most likely have turned in another customarily terrific performance, but McCarthy is just dynamite as the bitter, alcoholic Israel. For the dazzlingly funny actor, Israel is McCarthy’s high point to date, a role perfectly suited to the quicksilver insults she has so effortlessly conjured in the past (her unchained, foul-mouthed, improvisational prowess on display during the credit scene outtakes of This Is 40 comes to mind). McCarthy, with very few exceptions, has been trapped by the phenomenal work/execrable film conundrum. Several examples, like Tammy, The Boss and this year’s Life of the Party were directed by spouse/partner Ben Falcone.

Falcone’s broad brush is set aside for Heller’s finer strokes, and a substantial amount of pleasure can be derived from the subtleties and restraint of Heller’s impressionistic eye. The filmmaker consciously addresses themes of homosexuality with an awareness of the period setting. Israel keeps romantically-inclined bookshop owner Anna (an excellent Dolly Wells) at a distance, and later shares a pivotal scene of emotional reckoning with ex Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith). Peter Debruge questioned the trailer’s apparent muting of the gay themes, but many others have praised the end result, including Grant’s final interaction with McCarthy. Touching without wallowing in self-pity, the moment is capped with a fantastic farewell in which the friends say “I love you” to each other in a profoundly profane and unsentimental fashion befitting their acerbic personalities.

That flourish serves as a strangely wistful reminder of the exhilarating aspects of the criminal misadventures that came before. Israel’s guilt and shame over fraudulent transactions involved the names of witty, sharp-tongued bright lights like Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, Louise Brooks and several others for whom Israel developed a kind of parasocial masquerade. Heller and McCarthy take viewers into their confidence, making the case for both the awful, clammy anxieties associated with physical and intellectual property theft/deception and the pride at conjuring convincing intimacies that were valued as the real thing.

Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997. 

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