Review – Mea Culpa McCarthy (“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”)

Looks like Melissa McCarthy’s on a roll, cranking out one movie right after another. She just finished The Life of the Party and that dreadful The Happytime Murders, and now she’s got this one. At this rate she’s gonna be in competition with Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, and Tiffany Haddish for Most Movies Made!

Meet Lee Israel (McCarthy), a successful writer of biographies… however, that was a long time ago. But now it’s 1991 and Lee’s 51-years-old, broke, an alcoholic, and living in squalor in her dingy NYC flat with her sickly cat. Yeah, life sucks pretty bad. Even her exasperated book agent (a wonderful Jane Curtain) can’t help this sociopath who is desperate for work and facing a severe bout of writers block. Fortune appears when Lee accidentally finds a signed letter by Fanny Brice, the famous vaudevillian performer. After she sells it for some quick cash, a diabolical light bulb suddenly pops up: why doesn’t she type fake letters from famous people and forge their signatures?!

She buys a bunch of old typewriters, ‘ages’ paper and then, using her prowess as a writer and her knowledge of famous celebrities (Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, etc.), she starts to rake in the bucks as she sells forged letters to various bookstores (remember those?) and collectors. She even ropes in an accomplice, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a gay street hustler and thief. Together, they start to enjoy life again by perpetrating a fantastic hoax… that is until the bubble bursts (and you knew that was gonna happen sooner or later, right?).

Based on the true story, and Lee’s own autobiographical book, screenwriters Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q–the stage musical) and Nicole Holofcener (Friends With Money) have adapted Lee’s memoirs into a movie of poignancy, desperation, and desire. This isn’t like the giddy The Hoax, where the movie has fun showing the forgery process. No, this film showcases how drastic a person will sink to pay their rent, feed their cat, and just survive. Yes, it was really illegal, but her motives were one born out of hopelessness and utter despair and this movie draws you into her world with powerful emotion.

This is director Marilee Heller’s second only movie, this first being the forgettable Diary of a Teenage Girl. But being an actress herself gives her a clear advantage; she knows how to steer the action, and having Melissa McCarthy NOT doing her usual comedy schtick is a Godsend here. Heller lets McCarthy–brutally under-lit, no makeup, and a hackneyed wig–give a painful, nuanced performance that we haven’t seen from her in quite some time. She is raw, emotional, and ISN’T surrounded by any damn Muppets! I’m hoping for a Golden Globe for her with this one! I read the real story about Lee and, surprisingly, this movie is damn near spot-on in its accuracy of what really happened. How often do you see that in a biopic?

The Hoax (2006)

Sir Walter Scott said it best, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive!” And no one practiced that better than famed author and deceiver Clifford Irving. In 1971, Clifford did the unthinkable: he pulled off a hoax about writing an autobiography on reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes. And it almost worked!
Yeah, this really happened! Being a successful book author that falls on hard times calls for desperate times and equally desperate lies. After his newest book idea is shot down by his publisher, McGraw-Hill, Clifford (Richard Gere) gets an crazy, idiotic, but brilliant idea. He forges some papers (and the signature) of billionaire Howard Hughes giving Clifford permission to write his autobiography. Chomping at the bit (and drooling at the prospect) is publisher Andrea Tate (Hope Davis) and all the people at McGraw-Hill. NOW they love Clifford… that is, IF he can produce evidence!
So Clifford, along with his bestie, children’s book author & ace researcher Richard Suskind (Alfred Molina), concoct a wild scheme: find every available bit of trivia, archived past books, and hidden document as proof so they can “authenticate” Hughes’ writings. They even fake audio tapes from the man himself, with Clifford fudging Hughes’ voice on a home tape recorder! Talk about your brass cajones! Clifford’s own artist wife, Edith (Marcia Gay Harden) is on board with all the outrageous shenanigans.
As the money comes rolling in, on the promise that the manuscript will be written, deals within deals are starting to be made for millions of dollars, but there’s a problem. Some-how, this secret book project gets leaked and Hughes’ REAL people claim foul. But as the noose starts to tighten around Clifford’s paranoid neck, he doesn’t back down, but goes even further in his lies, leading his publishers, lawyers, and all of McGraw-Hill to believe him even more! As the book is headed for publication, everything looks great… until…
What with all stress of dodging his multiple lies, trying to cash forged checks in Switzer-land, getting paranoid delusions, having a secret affair, and the press breathing down his neck, Clifford is headed for a fall, and fall he does, big time and spectacularly. In a case of art imitating life imitating art, William Wheeler wrote this screenplay based on the book by Clifford Irving telling how he faked the almost-made book. Shot like a docu-drama, the story inter-cuts with topical news items of the day like Vietnam, Nixon, and the hippy generation, but thankfully, Swedish director Lasse Hallstrom (My Life As A Dog)  keeps the film moving.
Gere gives a bravura performances as Clifford, a man possessed by his own lies and self-destruction that he couldn’t stop. Molina also is wonderful as Clifford’s best friend, going along for the adventurous ride, until he realizes how deep the hole has become. What’s funny is, even though the real Clifford Irving lost all that money and went to jail for his lies and deceit, his made it all back (and more) afterwards with his book about how he did it and selling it for the movie rights! His Time Magazine front cover “Con Man of the Year”  also catapulted his name back into the publishers lap, as he continued to be a prolific author. Huh? I guess crime does pay!