Wrong is for Other People

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Marielle Heller, 2018)

There’s a PhilDickian moment towards the end of the film where a character is asking about the authenticity of a signed letter and is told it comes with a letter stating it is real. How do you know if that letter is real?

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) has been a successful biographer, but by 1990 has alienated her girlfriend (Anna Deavere Smith), her friends, her publisher and, most dangerously, her agent (Janet Curtin). And now she’s lost her job, she’s facing financial ruin. But she stumbles from a patch of petty pilfering into a money making scheme — faking celebrity letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. This enables her to pay her rent and pay for her drinks with her new acquaintance, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). All is well, until the dealers start getting suspicious and the FBI are on her trail.

Originally this was going to be directed by Nicole Holofcener — who has an adapted screenplay Oscar nod — and starring Julianne Moore and Chris O’Dowd, and you can just about see how the latter would have played it, although the IT Crowd persona wouldn’t work. But we have the ghost of Withnail with us — and Grant walks away with every scene that he’s in, and I’d love to see him get an Oscar. He, too, plays a forger, bed surfing and sofa surfing and bar hopping through Greenwich Village and environs, as well as dealing the odd line of adulterate coke. Like Rupert Everett, excellent as Oscar Wilde last year, he’s never quite lived up to his early promise, his potential for histrionics needing the right context.

Note that he is playing a middle aged and sexually active gay man. Israel is a middle aged lesbian, who teeters on an edge of a relationship but one that is already compromised. And yet there’s much to like about her, with her acid wit. Of course she is ostracised because she won’t play the game and won’t kiss ass. It is a breath of fresh air to have a central female character, who is not a wife or a mother or a trophy — who struggles and finds her own way and doesn’t need to apologise.

And of course, the real relationship in the film is between her and her cat. And it’s heartbreaking.

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