The real Lee Israel, the celebrity profiler turned forger who died in 2014, was a more boastful figure than the sad-sack recluse Melissa McCarthy plays in Marielle Heller's sympathetic biopic, especially when methodically detailing her brief, prolific criminal spree in the early 1990s. Israel explained in interviews that she wrote biographies of women with large personalities like Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen because she considered herself equally interesting. She even quoted a letter she had faked and credited to Dorothy Parker for the title of her 2008 autobiography, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
In this adaptation, Can You Ever Forgive Me? screenwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty envision Israel as a serious writer who just wants to disappear into her work; McCarthy's taciturn, seething Lee could never hold court at a literary soirée like master quipster Parker. Her forgeries get presented as victimless crimes because the dealers and collectors of authors' personal letters she hoaxes can well afford it. The more prickly and belligerent Israel becomes -- and McCarthy never burdens her with likability -- the more Holofcener and Whitty soften her choices with extenuating circumstances, imbuing their subject with a zeal for artistic purity at odds with her actions.
Heller and cinematographer Brandon Trost (who also collaborated on The Diary of a Teenage Girl, the director's first film) encase Israel in a Manhattan of faded grandeur. In this city of lonely outsiders, Lee's dubious friendship with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) gets presented as a lifeline. No one does dissolute hubris with as much charm as Grant, and his ebullience is the perfect foil to the misanthropic McCarthy.