McCarthy stars as Israel, an acerbic, exceedingly grumpy (to her own detriment) writer with mounting debt and a problem with alcohol, whose career hits the skids after a streak of poor book sales and dwindling interest in her work. In the early 1990s, while struggling with writer’s block and researching her latest project, she stumbles upon a couple of letters written by vaudevillian Fanny Brice and sells them to help pay for medication for her ailing cat. Sensing she may have discovered an untapped – and potentially lucrative – avenue for quick cash, Israel soon starts creating forgeries of letters from assorted literary greats (Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, to name two), using secondhand typewriters and purposely “aged” paper to improve the odds of the letters being seen as “authentic.”
Aided by her hustler friend Jack Hock (Grant) and infused with a new, and perhaps misplaced, enthusiasm for her work, Israel pens faux letter after letter filled with clever witticisms and scandalous secrets, relishing in the praise being heaped upon the words she’s attributing to someone else... but it’s not too long before her crimes begin to catch up with her.
Based on Israel's memoir of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is perfectly paced and unfolds like a caper film where you already know whodunit and why, and are just waiting to find out when she’ll get caught and how. Watching the machinations is super-fun, and following Israel's journey from the bottom to the top and back to the bottom – because of such an unlikely pursuit – is fascinating.
McCarthy is great as the acid-tongued scribe, whose proudest achievement is, ironically, the writing that results in her being tried by the FBI. She infuses Israel with enough humanity that she’s never one-note, and actually elicits some sympathy for this once-lauded personality whose life and career have taken a nosedive. Grant is, as mentioned, equally excellent, with his spritely demeanor and seemingly unrelenting verve – providing the perfect counterbalance to Israel's comparatively dark and morose personality. They make a great onscreen pair, and their performances are complemented nicely by the likes of Jane Curtin (as Israel's beleaguered agent), Dolly Wells (as a quiet bookstore owner charmed by Israel) and McCarthy’s frequent collaborator, husband Ben Falcone (as a collectibles trader perhaps even less scrupulous than Israel).
Directed by Marielle Heller and co-written by indie darling Nicole Holofcener (Friends With Money, Lovely & Amazing), the film strikes the right balance between comedy and drama, allowing McCarthy some terrific zingers while occasionally going so far as to tug at heartstrings a bit. It’s dark but funny but sad but entertaining, and is very clearly Oscar-bait material – deservingly so.