[Screen It]


(2018) (Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant) (R)

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Drama: A down-on-her-luck and unemployed writer finds her calling in creating fake personal letters from famous authors of the past.
It's 1991 and Lee Israel (MELISSA McCARTHY) is a writer who's enjoyed some success writing biographies about past famous figures, but can't find much work now. Her agent, Marjorie (JANE CURTIN), says that's not only due to few being interested in who she's writing about, but also because of her prickly demeanor that's recently gotten her fired from her day job.

While researching her latest subject, Fanny Brice, Lee happens upon a personal letter written by the woman and figuring it must be worth something, tries to sell it to a collector. Being informed it's not sexy enough to be of interest, Lee decides to add her own post-script to it -- copying the handwriting style -- and tries selling that.

Learning there's a market for such letters, she begins creating more of them, both in handwritten style and using vintage typewriters to get the look just right. Having incidentally been reunited with a former minor acquaintance, the roguish Jack Hock (RICHARD E. GRANT), Lee can't keep her illegal success to herself and spills the beans to her new best friend who revels in her creative but criminal endeavor.

At the same time, Lee is still fixated on her former girlfriend having dumped her, and thus doesn't seem to realize -- or at least ignores -- the fairly obvious romantic signals sent her way from bookshop owner Anna (DOLLY WELLS) who's bought some of Lee's latest "finds," not realizing they're forged.

From that point on, Lee continues her lucrative literary ruse that eventually segues into her stealing and selling real letters and replacing them with perfect forgeries.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
A common refrain among writers who've had little to no success with their work is something along the lines of "I could have written that better than" the published author whose work they've just read. That usually stems from jealousy -- of not having been published themselves or said authors being paid quite handsomely for their writing -- but sometimes it turns out to be an accurate assessment.

I have no idea what the related mindset of real-life writer Lee Israel was when she first began the most lucrative part of her career, but as presented in the terrific film about her life, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" it begins with the scribe realizing she can make up a far better personal letter from a famous but now dead writer than the one she accidentally discovered and tried to sell.

When we first meet Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy who completely disappears into the role to the point that she could earn an Oscar nomination for her portrayal), she gets fired from her job and complains to her agent (Jane Curtain) that not only can she not sell her biographies, but the likes of Tom Clancy are making millions selling what she's deemed crap. The agent explains that no one wants to read what she's writing and her prickly demeanor isn't helping her cause.

Enter the handwritten letter she stumbles upon and tries to sell to a collector, only to learn it's too bland to be of much interest. Accordingly, she adds a bit of postscript that kick-starts her career as a literary forger. And during this she ends up reintroduced to a former acquaintance and kindred spirit (Richard E. Grant -- who could also earn an Oscar nom for Best Supporting Actor) who encourages her to continue her financially rewarding literary deception and seems to revel in the outrageousness of it all.

But despite her economic gains, Lee still isn't happy, what with continuing to be fixated on her ex-girlfriend who dumped her, all while not realizing -- or purposefully ignoring -- that a young bookshop owner (Dolly Wells) is romantically interested in her.

I'll admit I knew next to nothing going into this beyond the basic premise, and slightly worried that McCarthy was going to be doing her usual comedy shtick with the performance and overall offering. Boy, was I wrong.

Director Marielle Heller -- working from a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty who've adapted Israel's 2008 confessional memoir of the same name -- pulls out what's arguably the actress' best work to date and it doesn't take long into the 107-some minute film that you completely forget your watching the performer previously best known for her over the top work in pics such as "Bridesmaids," "The Heat" and "Ghostbusters." Here, the performance is finely nuanced and played just right, while Grant makes for a delightful cheerleader partner in crime with enough poignancy to the character and performance to give him more depth than initially expected.

While I have no idea how audiences will react to seeing the film or McCarthy's role in it, I doubt many if any would-be writers will walk out saying they could have written it better than what they just witnessed. Engaging from start to finish, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 8, 2018 / Posted October 26, 2018

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