“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
The popularity of financial help gurus in our culture is an indication of just how difficult it is to make a decent living. Even if you're smart. Even if you're well-educated. And even if you've had some success in your career. There are no guarantees.
Lee Israel was a writer who specialized in biographies of celebrities from Hollywood's “Golden Era.” She was successful in being published in both national magazines and books that made the New York Times best-seller list. And then, in the late 1980's, interest in her work dried up. By the early 1990's, she was accepting menial proofreading jobs, when she could find work at all. It's not easy paying for an apartment in Manhattan, even if it is on 92nd Street. It didn't help that Lee Israel (played with a constant attitude by Melissa McCarthy) was caustic and sarcastic to everyone, and seemed to enjoy the company only of her 12-year-old cat. She also had a drinking problem, and that didn't help the cash flow, either. Her agent advises her to find another line of work.
Lee Israel has spent so much of her life immersed in celebrities from bygone days that she feels she can write like they did. It's a small step from there to take her old-school portable electric typewriter and forge notes and letters from famous people. There's a market for this kind of cultural icon memorabilia, and she finds the independent book store owners in the City who are willing to pay for these treasures that her cousin found in the attic. Or her aunt left them to her when she died. Whatever convenient story works at the time. Lee Israel enjoys so much success that she tells herself it's because she's a good writer, which was her passion in the first place. She begins to celebrate by drinking in a nearby bar, instead of by herself at home, and there she meets Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a former man-about-town who's gotten tattered around the edges. But he can still wheedle his blue eyes and his British accent enough to be Lee Israel's partner in crime, especially when she begins to feel that the local dealers are starting to catch on to her.
Melissa McCarthy is a good enough actress to maintain our interest in her character, despite the fact that Lee Israel not a nice person, and now spends her life in deceit and manipulation. She only bothers to be charming when she's trying to con a memorabilia dealer. The “real” Lee Israel forged some 400 letters, eventually graduating to stealing actual letters from university archives and replacing them with her forged copies. She catches wind of the FBI investigation, and manages to destroy most of the evidence before they serve her with a subpoena, and she winds up with only probation and temporary house arrest.
Lee Israel's final irony, before her death in 2014, was to write one more best-seller, published in 2008, this time about her own lawbreaking exploits. So her last con was making more money for explaining how she got away with her previous con.
Somehow, the joke's still on us.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association