Lee Israel (1939-2014) was a noted biographer who turned to selling forged literary letters — and famously got caught. Though she didn't live to see the film based on her confessional memoir, she couldn't have asked for a better or more empathy-generating actress than Melissa McCarthy to portray her. McCarthy (who replaced Julianne Moore) has a built-in charm that counteracts Israel's reputed anti-charm. Even though McCarthy studiously tamps down her appealingly broad persona, she can't help but make Israel into a sympathetic curmudgeon, albeit one who is portrayed in the script as brusque, rude and disloyal to everyone but her ailing cat.
In spite of those traits, we can't help but root for the disheveled wordsmith who can't compete with the Tom Clancys of the world.
As portrayed in the film, Israel, who had published well-received celebrity biographies before the offers dried up — thanks in part to an act of sabotage by a disgruntled subect, Estée Lauder — sells a sweet note of gratitude she'd received from Katharine Hepburn, whom she'd profiled for a magazine. This act of desperation leads her to realize the value of such documents. When she happens to find two original Fanny Brice letters while researching a doomed bio of the long-forgotten star, she sells those as well, deciding to forge letters from the celebrated names of the past, and quickly becoming involved in a lucrative criminal enterprise that will damage her career and her life.
Along the way, Israel receives help from flamboyant Village person Jack, a homeless gay man whose taste for the outrageous and hunger for friendship makes him, for a time, the perfect co-conspirator. Once Israel arouses suspicion (she eventually forged about 400 letters), Jack takes over as the salesman, approaching antiquarian booksellers with stories of how he came across such valuable historical documents, which by all accounts were beautifully written by Israel, who used a fleet of vintage typewriters to help in her ruse.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is slightly undercooked, much like the Meryl Streep vehicle Florence Foster Jenkins, coasting for too much of the time on the appeal of Israel's chutzpah. But once the film slows down and delves into Israel's odd bond with Jack and dips into her failed relationship with her ex (Anna Deavere Smith) and the nascent one between herself and one of her victims (Dolly Wells), it becomes a joy, required viewing for the best performance McCarthy's ever given, Bridesmaids included.
The film also deserves credit for exploring what economic necessity can bring out in otherwise reputable people, what the consequences are and that attempts to answer the question of whether we can ever forgive people who make mistakes as grand as those made by Lee Israel.