Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it is also sometimes a crime.
The crook in the fact-based and funny Can You Ever Forgive? is Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a writer of biographies and celebrity magazine profiles whose career is in decline. Nobody wants her book about Vaudeville star Fanny Brice, so she's out of work and about to be evicted from her apartment.
Israel starts scrounging for valuables to sell, including letters from famous people she's profiled, including Katharine Hepburn, and discovers they are worth a month's rent or two. She sells every item she can find, and in the process learns about the market for these specialized commodities — the better they capture the personality of the writer, the more valuable they are.
It occurs to Israel that a talented mimic (and an out-of-work writer) could forge these letters, using the right artifacts and some traced signatures. A few vintage typewriters later, and Israel is up and running — crafting and selling witty correspondence purportedly from Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker and others.
The fraud is pitched (by director Marielle Heller) as good fun, and Israel turns into an unlikely rooting interest. Unlikely because she's a recluse, a misanthrope, a cat lady/hoarder, a terrible housekeeper, and probably an alcoholic — attributes that McCarthy somehow assembles into a figure who earns our sympathy and affection. McCarthy's magic trick is to suggest that Israel is a woman who tried, and failed, to meet life halfway. We see it in a tender scene of another lonely woman (Dolly Wells) trying to befriend Israel, who doesn't know how to respond (her inability to read and respond to social cues may also be hardwired, something suggested by McCarthy's thoughtful performance).
It helps that Israel's crimes are essentially victimless, or that the victims are off screen. The letters end up in the hands of wealthy collectors, who can afford to endure a fraud or two. And she's no mere copycat. It takes resourcefulness and skill to do what Israel does, to understand a writer's voice, and to inhabit it — a feat more of invention than duplication.
It's possible to imagine the writers themselves getting a kick out of it — in the Charlie Kaufman version of this, ghosts of the writers would appear alongside Israel, making edits and suggestions. Israel does have an accomplice, a fellow drinker and couch surfer named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who becomes Israel's beard and stand-in when dealers, buyers, and law enforcement realize there is a forger at work, and start to close in.
This isn't so much a procedural, though, as it is a study of two characters in symbiosis. Can You Ever Forgive Me? charts the offbeat alliance and ultimately the friendship that develops between the Hock and Israel, a bond that exists somewhere between proximity and affinity. They are castoffs and misfits who live in the margins of 1970s/1980s Manhattan and fill its empty spaces with each other. Their final scene together, unsentimental yet somehow deeply emotional, registers as one of the year's best.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Directed by Marielle Heller. With Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtain, Dolly Wells and Ben Falcone. Distributed by Fox Searchlight
Parents guide: R
Running time: 106 minutes
Playing at: Ritz Five, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, AMC Voorhees