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Non-Review Review: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is, at its core, a story of authenticity.

It is the tale of Lee Israel, the noted biographer who hit a bit a creative and economic snag in the early nineties. Unable to shop around her planned biography of Fanny Brice, Israel instead decided to market forgeries; type-written letters offered up in the voices of famous writers, auctioned on the collector’s circuit. Israel had a knack for capturing the voices of her subjects, from Noel Coward to Dorothy Parker. In fact, Israel’s work was often deemed indistinguishable from the real thing, at least in an abstract and narrative manner.

Forging ahead.

There is something very timely in this premise, in the blurred boundaries between the real and the fake. Of course, this has been an aspect of the American character for well over a century, with P.T. Barnum famously advertising an obvious phony as “a genuine fake.” However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? arrives at a moment in time where the real and the fake seem to have collapsed into one another, where reality is often indistinguishable from fantasy, populated by people who will often happily accept a heartwarming fake over cold reality.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is largely an unshowy piece of awards fare. The film is never self-consciously stylised and never overly aggressive. Can You Ever Forgive Me? never seems sure how thrilling or how funny or how dramatic it should be, and so tries to split the difference between those three extremes. The result is a very broad film with a very familiar central arc. However, Can You Ever Forgive Me? very insistently avoids getting in its own way, which allows its two central leads room within which they might work their magic.

“Gee, Richard E. Grant sure plays a good drunk.”

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant have been receiving a lot of the awards love for Can You Ever Forgive Me? This makes sense. The duo are the beating heart of the film. Can You Ever Forgive Me? never quite elevates itself as a piece of cinema or as a narrative, but none of that really matters when McCarthy and Grant are on screen. Lee Israel and her collaborator (or “employee”) are enjoyable to watch, both alone and especially together.

There is a sense that Can You Ever Forgive Me? is perhaps a little softer and a little gentler than its central premise and character demand. Israel was an acerbic character, as any number of quotes from the real life individual would attest. Indeed, some of those quotes work their way into the film, with Israel occasionally seeming downright misanthropic. “I like my cat more than I like people,” Israel helpfully explains at one point, and there is a strong sense that this undersells how deeply and profoundly she hates people.

Working add Hock.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? repeatedly and consciously softens the edges of Israel, and the world in which she works. There are times at which Can You Ever Forgive Me? almost pitches itself as a life-affirming black comedy. This is most obvious at the climax of the film, in which Israel finds herself subjected to the mandatory reflection and growth that is expected of a protagonist in a film like this, demonstrating genuine self-awareness as the walls close in around her. Only in the post- (or during-) credits history lesson does Can You Ever Forgive Me? hint at an unrepentant Lee Israel.

This is less of an issue than it might otherwise be, because that warmth allows the audience to genuinely engage with the charming con artists played by McCarthy and Grant. There is never a sense that Can You Ever Forgive Me? feels anything less than complete empathy for Lee Israel or Jack Hock. This plays to the strengths of both McCarthy and Grant. McCarthy’s best comedic roles have always suggested a humanity beneath a more misanthropic or aggressive exterior, while Grant has a knack for sketching charming-yet-strangely-pitiable-barely-functional people.

Looking for a little Lee way.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is consistently impressed with the resourcefulness of its lead characters, whether stealing a fur coat from a check desk or carefully sussing out potential future business partners at a collectors’ convention. The film is consistently sympathetic to their status on the fringes of society. After all, few things will generate sympathy for writers like Tom Clancy bloviating about how “writer’s block” is just an elaborate conspiracy theory designed to disguise laziness while collecting a three million dollar advance for his latest work.

At the same time, there is a sense that Can You Ever Forgive Me? lacks commitment to some of its bolder ideas, perspective lost in its appreciation of both Israel and Hock. Can You Ever Forgive Me? never seems entirely sure at what level to pitch the story, whether it is a thriller or a comedy or a character study. It is a little too funny and heightened to work as a straight-up drama. It is not funny enough to ever trip over into full-blown absurdity. The film has a few cat-and-mouse moments as the net closes on Israel, but never wrangles enough sustained suspense from them.

Setting a high bar for con artists.

The result is a film that seems to expend a lot of energy trying to avoid leaning too far in one direction or another, instead remaining very carefully and very consciously balanced. The result is a film that often seems to lose its own voice, which is more than a little ironic given that its central character is a writer who defines herself by her cowardice and unwillingness to commit to her own voice and ideas, instead seeking the comfort and security of writing either about other people or by stealing their voices.

All the same, there is something quite timely in the basic premise of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a film that feels firmly anchored in the modern cultural moment. A lot of contemporary popular culture is fixated on the blurring boundaries between the real and the approximation of the real. Even in terms of films about art and literature, Can You Ever Forgive Me? enters release around the same time as the postmodern metafictional boundary-blurring docu-drama American Animals and as the more conventional art-world horror of Velvet Buzzsaw.

Curtain call.

Modern pop culture is very interested in the challenges of separating the real from the fake. This is a major part of Westworld, but the tension also plays out in more aggressively stylised self-aware biographical films like Vice or I, Tonya, which consciously play with both the format of the genre and the audience’s understanding that the genre demands a blurring of fiction and reality. Even BlacKkKlansman invites the audience to try to navigate the boundaries between fiction and reality, with a bizarre real-life story told in the style of a blaxploitation action comedy.

Of course, this is an extension of broader trends. Found footage horror was huge in the early years of the twenty-first century, and consciously blurred the boundaries between real footage and narrative, albeit in a less overt way. (It often seemed as much about saving cost as developing theme.) These sorts of films and television shows occasionally feel like an amplified echo of the postmodern reality-warping narratives of the nineties; The Matrix, Dark City, Fight Club, eXistenZ, The Blair Witch Project. Bono searched for something Even Better than the Real Thing.

A genius Grant.

It feels appropriate, on some level, that these films arrive amid a broader wave of nineties nostalgia. In fact, Can You Ever Forgive Me? even unfolds against the backdrop of the early nineties. At the same time, there’s no denying that the blurring of the real and the unreal in these stories speaks to current cultural anxieties; “deep fake” images, doctored official photographs, “echo chambers”, the Mandela Effect, the first President of the United States to be a product of so-called “reality television.” In the modern world, it often feels like real and unreal share the same physical space.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? repeatedly returns to the question of whether something fake can be more authentic than the genuine article. While Can You Ever Forgive Me? devotes some time to the mechanics of Israel’s scam – the typewriters that she uses, the way that she ages the paper, where she gets the letterheads – there is a strong sense that the most important thing about the fake letters is the ineffable content rather than the actual object itself. The forgeries are all type-written, with only the signatures traced by the static of Israel’s television set.

Fake it until you make it.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? repeatedly stresses that people are looking for something that feels real, rather than something that is real. Israel adds value to a real letter by sticking a completely fabricated – but more personal – postscript on it, to approximate the human touch. One dealer remarks upon how rare it is to read a letter that actually captures the intangible feeling of a famous literary figure; most of their correspondence tends to be drab and mundane.

Tellingly, Israel runs into trouble when those forgeries are shown to people who actually knew the real people and so can recognise the facsimiles. However, to those people who have fallen in love with a particular idea of these writers, the letters play into a fantasy. As such, Israel casts herself as the popular memory of writers like Noel Coward or Dorothy Parker. She is a fake that is more convincing than the real thing. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!” she boasts. At another point, a character quotes Israel’s words back to the forger, crediting them to Parker.

Phone-y.

This is the central and compelling paradox of what Israel is doing. Late in the film, she confesses, “For the first time in a long time, I was proud of my work. But it wasn’t really my work.” Whenever Hock needles Israel for “impersonating” dead writers, Israel grows uncomfortable. At what point is this an act of creation rather than simply a process of recycling? At what point does these works become art of themselves?

These questions obvious hang over modern pop culture where so much modern art is a process of recycling and reinventing, of reworking ideas created by older writers. Many modern screenwriters might empathise with Israel’s process here, the challenge of indulging their own creative impulses while working with another writer’s legacy. After all, the past few years have seen franchises like James Bond, Star Trek and Doctor Who celebrate fifty years of continuous storytelling, different authors all working with ideas from earlier writers. (Annihilation explores this.)

Letter go.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? never labours these points. It never really explores them as thoroughly as it might. In its own way, this seems like an important detail of itself. As with Collette, this is an example of a solid unshowy old-fashioned piece of awards fare that is playing with these big ideas in a much less showy or self-conscious way than more aggressive and hyperstylised works. Films like Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Collette demonstrate how deeply this crisis of authenticity has seeped into the popular imagination, that it bubbles away in the background.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a very timely and contemporary film, just not in an especially showy or dramatic manner. It’s a film that never gets in its own way, throwing out big ideas and then affording its two leads the room which they need to work. It might not be the real deal, but it works more than enough.

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