Can You Ever Forgive Me?: The Psychology of Failure

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

**** (out of 4)

Lee Israel was a writer whose life story is at once cautionary and perversely compelling. Although her books had once been New York Times bestsellers, Israel found herself struggling to pay rent by the 90s. Desperate, she turned to forgery, writing and selling what she claimed were authentic letters by luminaries like Noël Coward and Edna Ferber. The FBI eventually tracked Israel down and slapped her with a five-year probationary sentence. But she ultimately got the last laugh: her exploits provided the basis for a fairly well-received memoir, and two of her forgeries even appeared in an official collection of Coward’s letters.

Israel’s life is the subject of Marielle Heller’s new biopic, Can You Ever Forgive Me? If you hadn’t actually seen it, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the film is meant to be a sort of comedy. Israel, after all, is played by Melissa McCarthy, an actress who’s built an entire career around her ability to make people laugh. When it’s not playing up Israel’s various run-ins with the law, moreover, the film’s trailer highlights the witty rapport that she establishes with her partner-in-crime, a homeless yet smooth-talking con artist named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). And in keeping with these facts, reviews of the film have frequently described it with adjectives like “charming,” “quirky,” and “slick.”

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

In actuality, however, Can You turns out to be something decidedly somber: a study of failure and the counterproductive ways in which people cope with it. For every scene that features hilarious banter between Israel and Hock, after all, there are far more that emphasize the direness of Israel’s personal situation. Israel, we see, is not only dirt poor (read: lives-in-an-apartment-that-reeks-of-cat-feces poor). She’s also a loner who’s regularly spurned by literary agents, fellow writers, and ex-girlfriends alike. And to top it all off, she’s also an inveterate alcoholic, a drunkard who’s only too happy to spend whole afternoons getting hammered at rundown bars.

Many films about failure try to uplift viewers, depicting the gradual process by which characters learn from mistakes. What distinguishes Can You, however, is its observation that real people usually don’t learn from errors – and in Israel’s case, this notion manifests itself in two different aspects of her behavior. First, instead of reflecting on her faults, Israel blames and criticizes others. As she sees it, successful authors like Tom Clancy are “frauds,” her unaccommodating agent is an “asshole,” and the booksellers who won’t buy her used books are crabby “jerks.” Acerbic to the point of being impolitic, Israel’s insults always give her an air of smug superiority. But throughout the film, we never forget that she actually issues them from a position of insecurity – and that they’re invariably directed at people who have the reputation and money that she wants but lacks.

From here, Israel also repeatedly and willfully forgoes opportunities to change herself, even though she clearly knows better. Throughout the film, people regularly give Israel advice about re-launching her career, telling her that she needs to stop drinking, socialize more often, and actually try to come across as likeable. Instead, Israel proudly skips Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, openly scorns the idea of doing community service, continually rebuffs strangers’ attempts to make friendly small talk, and spurns a bookseller’s (Dolly Wells) efforts to strike up a friendship. You can only become successful if you reject the habits and mindset that once led you towards failure. But as Heller suggests through Israel’s story, that requires a humility, tenacity, and self-awareness that most people simply don’t have.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

On the whole, Can You thus stands as a thoughtful and moving depiction of human fallibility. Its power in this regard, moreover, has much to do with the strength of Heller’s direction and storytelling approach. Neither judgmental nor excessively forgiving, for one, her attitude towards Israel is that of a person who merely seeks to understand. As such, the film allows us to empathize with someone we’d otherwise be inclined to dismiss as a criminal misanthrope. Additionally, from a stylistic perspective, Heller’s use of dark-lit interiors dovetails with the grimness of Israel’s personal situation – while the camera’s noticeably smooth movements complement the notion that Israel’s haughtiness is just a facade.

Ultimately, the thing you’ll most remember about Can You is McCarthy. In keeping with her reputation as a comedian, McCarthy deftly embodies Israel’s sarcastic side, delivering insults with a relish that greatly enlivens the narrative. Yet when she’s not issuing vicious broadsides, McCarthy’s Israel also displays a remarkable vulnerability. As the movie moves forward, the self-righteousness in her expression gradually gives way to faint traces of anxiety, a hesitancy that hints at the unacknowledged insecurity lurking beneath her hardened outer shell. In this and many other respects, then, McCarthy’s performance expertly reinforces the narrative’s themes about facades and human imperfection. And with luck, it’ll come to mark a turning point in a career that’s too often fallen victim to unwarranted typecasting.

Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

***

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018)

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

Running Time: 106 minutes

MPAA Rating: R, “for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use.”

Produced by: Anne Carey, Amy Nauiokas, David Yarnell

Written by: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty. Based on Lee Israel’s 2008 autobiography of the same name.

Directed by: Marielle Heller