Bad behavior provides great fun in “Forgive Me”

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” opening Nov. 2 at the Landmark Ritz, is director Marielle Heller’s fabulous dark comedy-drama — based on the true story — about Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a lonely lesbian who was once a New York Times-bestselling author who now can’t pay her vet bill. 

As the film opens, Lee gets fired from a job and is trying to figure out her next move. Broke and antisocial, she just wants to write a biography of Fanny Brice, but her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) claims that there is no market for her work. Moreover, Marjorie insists that if Lee wants to be taken seriously again, she needs to be nicer to people — and be sober. A heavy drinker, Lee heads to Julius’, the gay bar in the Village, to get drunk. It is at Julius’ where Lee reconnects with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay man she once met at a party who becomes her drinking buddy and coconspirator.

The pair develop a close bond. But with money tight, Lee needs to find a way to pay some bills. She eventually resorts to selling a personal letter Katharine Hepburn wrote her to Anna (Dolly Wells), a bookseller. When she discovers some original Fanny Brice letters in a library book, Lee realizes there is a lucrative market in famous letters and concocts a forgery scheme. Lee procures different typewriters and creates old, “authentic” stationery, forges signatures and writes bon mots in the style of Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker, among other literary luminaries, to make the phony letters more valuable.   

Lee has instant success selling these documents in the collectibles world. With her despair suspended and batteries recharged, Lee starts enjoying life again. She splurges, taking Jack out to dinner and to a drag performance, can now afford vet care for her sick cat and even cleans up her apartment, which has been a disaster area for far longer than Lee cares to admit. (There is a very good reason for why she is having a mosquito problem). 

Lee picks up on the hints that Anna wants to date her, and even agrees to go out to dinner with the bookseller who is enamored with the once-famous writer. Their date is awkward and sad, but it is hard not to hope for the misanthropic Lee to connect with someone on an emotional level. While she advises only Jack of her criminal enterprise, their friendship gets tested as Lee’s forgeries start generating some unwanted attention and she turns Jack for help.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” starts out as a darkly funny comedy, with the bitter Lee misbehaving towards others and dispensing some hilarious one-liners. Lee drips cynicism and sarcasm in a diner sharing Jack’s food while he leers at a cute Latino waiter and asks him inappropriately about his cinnamon buns. But as the film progresses, it gets oddly poignant as Lee uses her talents to her advantage, albeit illegally, and finds a sense of self. 

McCarthy makes Lee quite sympathetic even when she is most pathetic. The actress gives a sly dramatic turn capturing Lee’s anger and frustration at being almost forgotten in the literary world — and her secret satisfaction with getting one over on all the folks she scams. It’s a high-wire act of a performance, and McCarthy induces giddiness as she acts unassuming while plotting ways to pull off her hoax. She is also quite touching, most notably when she meets her ex, Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith), to have a heart-to-heart during a particularly low period in her life. 

McCarthy is ably abetted by Richard E. Grant, who is perfectly cast as the feckless Jack. While his relationship with Lee falters after he loses her trust, Grant’s performance is always top-notch.

The fun of watching Lee getting away with her forgeries eventually takes a serious turn as Lee gets creative in trying to escape the law and procure some real letters so as not to arouse suspicion from her vendors. 

Nevertheless, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is mostly a good time about bad behavior. Lee’s impersonation of Nora Ephron to get Marjorie to take her calls, or her catty rapport with Jack add to the hilarity. Moreover, some of the witticisms when she writes as Dorothy Parker about her hangover are very amusing. 

Heller features a terrific soundtrack of old songs to emphasize the film’s wistful mood and includes some clever comical bits at the end that make sure that Lee and audiences get the last laugh.