One of the great pleasures of postmodern storytelling is its willingness to go beneath and beyond the obvious and explore what lies beneath the easy-to-access tropes and cliches.
This means that in a film like Can You Ever Forgive Me?, the “villain” is rendered not as some ne’er do well with few redeeming features, but as a complex person trapped in a social web both not and of their own making who makes some dubious life decisions to keep her head above water.
Melissa McCarthy plays the flawed protagonist, biography author Lee Israel in the 1991-set story, a desperately-lonely woman with intimacy issues so pronounced her default mode of social interaction is swear-laden curmudgeonly.
She is behind on all her bills, has lost the affection and interest of her high-flying literary agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin), has no real friends beside her beloved cat Jersey and is unspeakably lonely.
Hardly the portrait of a compelling main character you might think but in McCarthy’s hands, Israel emerges as a woman who is well aware of her own shortcomings but seemingly powerless to do anything about them.
One of the more illuminating scenes, which follows her arrest by the FBI for selling forged letters from literary greats such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward, illustrates just how trapped she is within herself.
In front of the judge who will sentence her, she begins her final statement of defense in what has up to that point been vintage Israel – defiant, unrepentant and seemingly willing to fight down to the wire; but then a curious shift occurs and she cracks open, revealing a broken woman, disappointed in life, love and career who has gone down a path that seemed the only viable option but which has ruined her already slim chances of happiness to an almost irreparable degree.
The brilliance of McCarthy’s portrayal, which is impressively layered and nuanced throughout, is that she manages to render Israel not as some hard-done-by saint, which would’ve been the lazy option, but as a woman who desperately wants more from life but has no idea how to get it.
Every piece of advice she is offered, from Marjorie’s exasperated exhortation that she make a name for herself as an author rather than hiding behind her subject matter to her ex Elaine’s (Anna Deavere Smith) frank assessment of what went wrong in their relationship seems to slide off her back like water off the proverbial duck’s.
It’s all too easy in those situations to look at someone like Israel, who by all accounts was a gifted writer with an expansive and articulate command of her subject matter, as someone who should’ve known, and done, better.
After all, she was talented, she had, at one time at least, some people who cared for her, and she was a smart woman who could more than hold her own with all kinds of people and disparate situations if she wished to.
But assessing someone on what, in theory, should happen based on a set of variables is never an accurate way to pass judgement; we are, after all, all of us, contrary mixes of good and bad, wise and ill-judged and never the sum of neatly-layered out parts.
Lee Israel was certainly example A in this regard, someone who ostensibly should have been successful in life but who instead found herself lonely, almost on the street and with yawning gaps where her career and relationships should be.
Israel may sound, on paper at least, a wholly unattractive person to anchor a film around, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? is warm and funny too, thanks largely to the friendship between Israel and Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), whose measured flamboyance (out there but not cartoonish) somehow meshes seamlessly with Israel’s near-universal hatred of the world and those who live in it.
Helping too is the fact that McCarthy’s barbed exchanges with just about everyone, save for the purveyors of high-end literary collectibles on whom she depends for her criminal career, are delivered in such a way that you can see the hurt little girl cowering behind.
In ways big and small, mostly the latter such is McCarthy’s adroit portrayal of the character, we see what drives Israel to commit her crimes, why she is so unwilling or unable to forge another path to salvation (assuming one even exists) and how frightened she is of what might happen to her if everything goes south (which, of course, it does).
It’s a near flawless portrayal that says as much about society and the literary world as it does about the person itself.
Whatever her aspirations, or her inability to deliver on them in any kind of meaningful way, Israel was a victim of a dog-eat-dog industry that rewarded fabrication, thrived on artifice and self-promotion and which spat out its unwanted with little to no ceremony.
That doesn’t mean that Israel is rendered as a wronged saint- far from it; rather she is a self-defeating person in an industry where you are expected to be larger, bigger and brighter, things far beyond Israel’s capacity to deliver.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is propelled by brilliantly-delivered rapier wit, achingly heartbreaking insights into a broken women’s world, career-best performances, and a fine understanding by screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty that a person’s life is rarely as straightforward as it appears from the outside, nor are any solutions to what ails them.
By portraying Israel as a broken women in a broken world, enmeshed in her own destructively self-defeating behaviour and almost powerless to do anything about it despite palpable, punishing self-awareness, director Marielle Heller gives us a heartfelt and funny portrait of a life unravelled and unravelling, and a person who wants so much from life but never manages to make it happen.