By the very definition of the word, most of us are "average," neither achieving the heights of greatness, fame and riches, nor falling into homelessness or a "crime-that-doesn't- pay" lifestyle. Averageness can be quantified: average height, average weight, average earnings -- but "ordinariness" is a state of mind.
No matter how distinct one's personality, no matter her or his idiosyncrasies, a person may well feel maddeningly ordinary in a culture that worships the great, the celebrated and the notorious. For celebrity biographer Lee Israel, her ordinariness was a metaphorical prison, so she risked a spell in a literal prison to rise above her station. Her true story forms the basis of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," a remarkable, admirably low-key, modern tragedy that marks Melissa McCarthy's dramatic breakthrough as Israel.
Screen writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty skillfully adapt Israel's 2008 memoir "Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Memoirs of a Literary Forger," and director Marielle Heller ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl") finds a sweet spot of aching humanity and absurdist-adjacent escapism in telling this unusual true-crime story (it doesn't hurt that producers David Yarnell and Anne Carey knew Israel).
The film takes place in 1991 Manhattan, where Israel lives frustratingly adjacent to the high life. She writes of the extraordinarily talented, the rich and famous, but even her best-selling days as a biographer are behind her (Israel's agent, played by Jane Curtin, must repeatedly insist that no one will buy a biography of Vaudeville star Fanny Brice). Israel's Upper West Side home puts her in a desirable neighborhood, but in a rundown, cramped apartment shared only by her cat. Though once a New York Times best-seller, she can't pay her bills. She can still, barely, hobnob at the same cocktail parties as author Tom Clancy.
Israel spends her free time either home with her cat or at her local watering hole, where she can drink unmolested -- until, that is, she's approached by a brief acquaintance of cocktail parties past, a faded dandy by the name of Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant). He's even more down on his luck than Israel, and the two quickly bond as outsiders scraping by in a big city cruelly indifferent to their prodigious wits. Inspired by Jack's licentiousness and the value of celebrity curios in her position, but more so by her own desperation and righteous indignation at her talents being ignored, Israel begins forging celebrity letters for sale on the collector's market.
By channeling the great wits, Israel begins to find herself. The thrill of her criminal endeavor (which she gets away with far longer than one would think possible) reignites her passion, and her friendship with Jack.
McCarthy clearly feels a connection to Israel's outsider artistry, her utter commitment to become someone else for a few stolen moments, and her pride in a job well done (in the film's most wrenching scene, Israel confesses, stubbornly adding, "In many ways, this has been the best time of my life. It's the only time recently I can remember being proud of the work I was doing"). McCarthy's grounded performance proves that her talents aren't limited to comedy, even as she does right by Israel's acid wit. Grant makes an ideal foil for McCarthy, trying to hide behind a rakish grin even as he sweats sadness. There's nothing ordinary about their performances, or the sad, sympathetic film that contains them.