Maybe If You Weren't The Worst - Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Often, when I don’t like a movie, the flaw with it is something the filmmakers are unintentionally doing. Maybe the writing is poor, maybe the performances are bland, maybe it’s just a bore. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is actually not plagued by any of that. It is well-executed for what it is, but ultimately ill-conceived. I kept watching and thinking, “did this really need to be a movie?” Sure, the story of Lee Israel’s hijinks are novel enough (no pun intended), but is there a real reason to tell this story? Is there a value in seeing this on screen? Is there anything to take away here? The answer to all of these is a series of ‘Nos’ and it begs the question, why would I forgive you?
Lee Israel’s career as a writer was based largely on biographies of high-achieving women. With her best publishing days behind her, Lee struggles to make enough money to survive in 1980s New York City. As her relationship grows more and more frosty with her publisher, she reaches rock bottom.
When she randomly comes across a letter by comedienne, Fanny Brice, she discovers the world of rare letters and their resale value. Taking things one step further, she starts to produce counterfeit letters and sell them all over New York City. When authorities catch on to her, she has her friend, Jack Hock, do the in-person selling, as the two work to defraud as many people as they can before it’s too late.
Narratively, this all works. The movie has a certain heist element to it that is a lot of fun and McCarthy and Grant have a wonderful chemistry on screen. I would like to stress, this is not a bad movie. Richard E. Grant’s performance, especially, is a bright spot in the movie landscape. But for me, the movie failed on its terms. It wants us to find some warm fuzzies in the narrative of Lee Israel that just aren’t there. Nothing about her character is actually likable regardless of how charming McCarthy is. She is irredeemable, yet so much of the movie relies upon rooting for her and finding joy in her actions. But how one is supposed to squeeze joy out of the utterly joyless is beyond me. If this had been played as a straight drama where Israel’s life spirals downward until she dies alone as penance for her lack of remorse, that would have at least made sense. As is, there is nothing but scenes that don’t land because I feel nothing for most of the characters involved.
On a deeper level, there is also the underlying glamorization of her criminality and the glaring reminders that the justice system works differently for different people. The movie is blithely unaware of the inequities in the criminal justice system. Ignoring that there are people who will die in prison for drug offenses committed in Lee Israel’s 1980’s New York is at best mildly offensive and at worst, shameful. The movie is obsessed with romanticizing that which shouldn’t be and earnestly expects to generate sympathy even as Lee says ‘I am not sorry.’ The juxtaposition of her lack of contrition and what I know to be so about how the justice system treats people who don’t look like her left me without much to like about this movie.
It is not a surprise that a movie could be so technically strong and so emotionally weak. But what is a surprise is that everything that’s wrong with the movie was wrong before the cameras started rolling. That is what I can’t forgive.
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