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Movie Review

The alphabet is not copyrighted. You and I can use as many A's and O's and G's as we'd like. Thank goodness: My job would be much harder if we couldn't.

But when you string them together into words, then sentences, then whole pages of thoughts, they collectively become something special. Something unique. And if you lift these words from someone else and pass them off as your own, that's stealing.

Lee Israel knows this. She's a writer, after all: She knows about the preciousness and primacy of the written word. She'd never dream of lifting from, say, the legendary wit of Dorothy Parker. In fact, Lee's now in the business of actually giving Parker her own, sometimes superior wit—through letters she writes in Parker's style and then sells to dealers as Parker originals. (Lee's generosity seems doubly considerate, given that Dorothy's been dead for ages and can't generate anymore wit on her own.)

"I'll have you know, I'm a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!" she tells her sole friend, Jack Hock.

Yes, Lee may be writing as Dorothy Parker, but the words she writes are hers. The stationary she writes on—painstakingly replicated from Parker's own stash—is Lee's. The typewriter she writes with—the very make and model that Parker used—is Lee's too. So it is with all the other writers that Lee mimics: Lee uses a dozen or so typewriters, each paired to a different author.

Why, the only thing that Lee's technically stealing (if we must label it so) is Parker's signature. And even that is done by Lee's own hand, tracing Parker's bubbly scrawl by the light of a glowing television screen.

No, the last thing that Lee wants, or needs, is credit for her work, however good it might be. Ever since her writing career dried up and her agent stopped taking her calls, she's been depending on these creative forgeries to make her New York City rent, pay her prodigious liquor bills, buy her cat medicine.

And her career as a forger pays well: A fake letter from Parker might go for $200, $300 dollars, depending on how scandalous it sounds. A Noël Coward note with a confessional codicil? Maybe more. Collectors pay big bucks for these things. After all, not everyone can own an honest-to-goodness letter from a literary great.

And if those letters are more good than honest? Lee may find that her, um, gifts could soon grant her a present, too: Free room and board in the nearest prison cell.

Positive Elements

While we're on the subject of honestly, let's be honest about Lee: She's a jerk. Only one human—Jack Hock—seems to appreciate her, and that's only because he's as much of a pill as she is.

But Lee sure does love her cat, and the cat loves her right back. (Well, as much as cats can, that is.) In fact, it's ultimately the fact that she can't afford medicine for her feline that turns Lee to her curious life of crime.

Spiritual Content

None.

Sexual Content

Lee's a lesbian: Not that that seems to matter in any practical sense here. Her one-time lover left her long ago and is in no hurry to reenter her life. (Lee sometimes calls her number, and she's perpetually exasperated when another woman answers the phone.) She and a bookseller named Anna seems to share a mutual attraction. They go to dinner once before Lee's innate standoffish attitude (and her out-of-control forgery business) comes between them.

Jack Hock, Lee's sole friend, is gay as well. He flirts with a waiter over the subject of cinnamon buns (Lee makes a crass comment about oral sex after the waiter leaves). They later have a tryst in Lee's temporarily vacant apartment. (We see the two kiss and cuddle, and a scene depicts them both in Lee's bed, apparently naked. When Jack gets out of bed, audiences get a good glimpse of his exposed posterior.) It's suggested that Jack's had plenty of lovers, who've helped him somehow survive through the years in New York without any obvious means of income. Lee later tells Jack—who's by now sick with AIDS—that his state shouldn't be too surprising, given that Jack slept with most of the men in Manhattan. One scene take place in a nightclub featuring a singer in drag.

Lee fabricates letters from Noël Coward, making reference to his homosexual orientation. (It's later one of the mistakes that exposes Lee's fraudulent work, given that homosexuality was illegal when Coward was around, and he would've never expressed his sexual inklings so boldly.) Lee also drops other vaguely scandalous hints in her forgeries.

Violent Content

[Spoiler Warning] Lee's beloved-but-ancient cat dies from an apparent accidental drug overdose. Lee cradles the cat's corpse in her arms, and threatens to kill the overdose administrator if he doesn't leave her apartment immediately. There's a reference or two to suicide.

Crude or Profane Language

More than 15 f-words, nearly a dozen s-words and a c-word. We also hear other profanities including "a--," "b--ch," "d--n," "h---," "p-ss," "f-g" and the British profanity "bloody." God's name is misused about 10 times, twice with the word "d--n." Jesus' name is abused thrice. We hear one crude reference to the female anatomy.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Lee has a serious drinking problem. She gets fired from a job while sipping whiskey at her cubicle. (She swallows the rest in one gulp when her boss tells her to pack her things.) At a party, she spies a table full of half-filled whiskey glasses, pours one into the other to make it a "double" and drinks it.

Rarely is Lee without a glass or bottle of booze nearby. When she briefly meets her old lover in a park, the woman tells Lee that the liquor contributed to the death of their relationship. When Lee's on trial for her crimes, her lawyer says he'll only defend her if she'll start attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. (When she meets Jack Hock one final time, though, Lee meets him in a bar: She's technically under house arrest, but she got out to, supposedly, attend an AA meeting.)

When Lee decides that forging letters is getting too risky, she plots to steal real letters from various research libraries, replacing them with her own forgeries. To gain access to one such library, Lee tells a librarian that she's researching the connection between famous writers and alcoholism.

Jack, in addition to his own raging drinking habits, has other problems. We see him snort cocaine and talk about "coke and dope." It seems that he sells the stuff, too. He smokes constantly, using a stubby cigarette holder.

We see lots of people drink at bars, nightclubs and parties. We hear allusions to excessive drinking in the letters that Lee fabricates, including "Dorothy Parker" discussing a raging hangover and her inability to remember what happened the night before. (The title of the film is taken, in fact, from this letter—"Parker" asking for forgiveness for acts committed that she can only assume must've been horrid.)

Other Negative Elements

Lee Israel's real-life New York Times obituary said, "Those who knew her said … she possessed a temperament that made conventional employment nearly impossible."

In this dramatic take on her life, many of Lee's associates use more colorful language to describe her. In any case, she treats lots of people terribly. Lee's agent says that if she wants to have a viable career, she'll have to take one of two paths: "You either become a nicer person, or you can take the time to make a name for yourself," she says. Famous people, it seems, can be insufferable.

Obviously, Lee's habit of forgeries falls into this category as well. But she steals other things, too. She swipes rolls of toilet paper from a party hostess, and she takes home another guest's coat. And, of course, she ultimately steals actual letters, too. Jack also admits to having "a little shoplifting problem," and the two fondly reminisce about a party they both went to—one at which Jack got so drunk that he stumbled in a closet and, thinking it was a bathroom, urinated in it. (Lee chuckles at the thought of all the old women taking home their urine-covered furs.)

Speaking of which, Lee's apartment turns out to be really, truly disgusting—so much so that when a maintenance man comes to spray the place because of a fly problem, he takes one whiff and announces he'll only return when it's cleaned up. Jack and Lee begin cleaning months—perhaps years—worth of filth, and when they look under Lee's bed they discover the floor's covered with cat feces.

Conclusion

Can You Ever Forgive Me? was released just days after the 50th anniversary of the MPAA ratings system—a system that replaced what was commonly known as the Hays Code. That Code, enforced throughout Hollywood's Golden Age, ensured that Hollywood movies would (generally) hold to some firm ethical guidelines: No nudity, no swearing, very little blood. But the code went beyond just the surface issues that we dutifully tabulate here at Plugged In. It insisted that any cinematic evildoers must be punished: Movies could not and should not romanticize bad behavior.

Using that ethical grid, Can You Ever Forgive Me? would've never made it to screen. Not even if its makers stripped it clean of its pervasive bad language, drug use and sexuality.

Sure, Lee Israel is eventually caught. She's "punished," to some extent. And she does seem to come to realize that she's not a particularly good person.

But Lee's barely repentant (reflecting, it would seem, the real-life Lee Israel). In fact, she's pretty proud of her work: Her forged letters, she suggests, are the best writing she's ever done. She even admits to a judge that she's really sorry … she was caught.

In the end, the portrait we get of Lee Israel and Jack Hock is one of two wholly unrepentant sinners, skipping their way to some secular hell like Dorothy and the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz, barely even tolerating each other along the way.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is clever and, in some ways, entertaining. It gives us a great glimpse of both some renowned (and dead) writers and of the strange world built on their celebrity. But the film's also devoid of greater merit or moral. It's free of lessons or, frankly, likeable characters. Like Lee's fabricated letters, Can You Ever Forgive Me? feels erudite, entertaining and, in the end, utterly empty.

Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

Christian Beliefs

Other Belief Systems

Authority Roles

Profanity/Violence

Kissing/Sex/Homosexuality

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Episode Reviews

Credits

Rating

Readability Age Range

Author

Cast

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel; Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock; Dolly Wells as Anna; Ben Falcone as Alan Schmidt; Gregory Korostishevsky as Andre; Jane Curtin as Marjorie

Director

Marielle Heller ( )

Distributor

Fox Searchlight

Network

Performance

Record Label

Platform

Publisher

In Theaters

October 19, 2018

On Video

February 19, 2019

Year Published

Awards

Reviewer

Paul Asay

Content Caution

Kids
Teens
Adults
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