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Movie Review: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

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What do you do when you’re a lonely, has-been cat-loving lesbian writer in New York and the landlord wants the rent?

Lee Israel can show you, in Marielle Heller’s wonderful new film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

The film, adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s memoir of the same name, tells the fascinating true story of what desperation can drive a former author of a New York Times bestseller to do.

Israel (Melissa McCarthy) wrote celebrity biographies in the ’70s and ’80s. Among her subjects were Katharine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead, and Dorothy Kilgallen. When this type of book went out of fashion and Israel’s last book (about cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder) flopped, so did her career. Soon even her agent avoided her.

One day, while rooting around for possessions she could sell, her eye fell on a framed letter from Katharine Hepburn. She took it to a rare book dealer, sold it for $200 and got the idea for a new career.

One day in the public library, she was reading about Fanny Brice when two loose notes from Brice fell out of the book. She stole them, sold them to a collector and decided she could probably make money writing fake letters from the famous.

She did her research, reading widely so she could imitate style successfully. She was careful to find out what kind of typewriter and paper these folks used. And she trafficked only in the most likely to sell: Dorothy Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman, Marlene Dietrich.

Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But not only is this true, it worked, and soon Israel was back on good terms with her landlord and other creditors.

McCarthy is the perfect person for this role. This “Saturday Night Live” cast member (playing former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer) has the fearless devil-may-care attitude of a standup comedienne that fits right in with Lee Israel’s audacious plot.

Along the way, Israel met gay petty criminal Jack Hock (played with great flash and panache by Richard E. Grant), daring and just as lonely as Israel. They made a charming if strange partnership, misfits and barflies, defiant scofflaws allied for illegal adventures.

One joy of this film is watching these two, who seem to be having as much fun together onscreen as they are reported to have had offscreen. Another plus is that everything you see in the film is in New York, not on a set somewhere. This gives it a feeling of immediacy and authenticity that makes even the subject of the film easier to believe. 

Even the message – that life doesn’t always work out the way it should – is easier to take with these utterly committed performers.

Don’t miss this astonishing story.

To find out showtimes for "Can You Ever Forgive Me?”​ click HERE.