In “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” the biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) drinks so many scotch and sodas that her hair and clothes seem to turn the same color as her beverage of choice.
She’s at the point in the writer’s life when you attend a party thrown by your agent just to down a quick cocktail and snag handfuls of shrimp to bring home and share with your cat. The agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), is unavailable when Lee calls but, when Lee impersonates Nora Ephron, she gets right through.
When pressed, Marjorie says she couldn’t get a $10 advance for Lee’s latest biography of Fanny Brice, let alone the $10,000 Lee needs to stay afloat. The aggrieved scribe comes back with an excellent dis of fellow client Tom Clancy — who’d just signed to a $3 million book pact — “No self-respecting writer would drink sherry.”
One night at the bar, Lee falls in with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an occasional drug dealer and full-time gadabout who has been barred from Duane Reade pharmacies for theft and general impetuousness. Grant, perhaps the best actor presently available if you need someone to play a lush, is a slurred vision of blue eyes and bolo ties. When Jack stumbles alongside Lee’s worn tweeds, they make a sartorially appalling but misanthropically appealing pair.
When Lee is forced to sell a beloved personal note from Katherine Hepburn, she realizes there is some money in forging letters from celebs. With the thinnest background story — something about her cousin finding the letters in a drawer — she sells fake missives to very credulous dealers Paul (Stephen Spinella) and Alan (Ben Falcone). There’s also Anna (Dolly Wells), the most knowledgeable of all Lee’s dupes, who runs a bookstore and is an aspiring writer.
While Jack’s homosexuality is on uproarious display for the entire film, Lee’s lesbianism is more obscured. She keeps her distance from the clearly interested Anna, as she did with her ex Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith), who we meet in a brief but devastating scene.
Centered around its discomfiting female lead, the film is a welcome departure from most cinema in wide release. Director Marielle Heller brings a gloomy vibe to Manhattan in the early 90s… though at least you could smoke indoors and drink whiskey all day even when you were broke. Heller benefits from a caustic screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty — the jokes are funny but laughter is a little brittle.
The film crackles with good questions about the creative impulse and even artistry behind Lee’s letters. She has to know the voices of all the writers and actors intimately to understand what kind of juicy postscript to append. Lee’s healthy ego does interfere from time to time, as when she claims to be a better Dorothy Parker letter writer than Dorothy Parker herself.
Lee is undertaking the sort of avant garde project for which a writer might reasonably be paid, if it weren’t so dishonest. Because Lee’s letters can’t be “authenticated by an authenticator,” the suspicions of her patrons are raised, and Jack is not the most reliable partner in crime.
Lee is doomed once she decides to steal real letters (and replace them with fake ones) to throw the investigators off her trail. For all of her work — which includes a great accumulation of old stationery and typewriters — she is still not making much more than the minimum needed to pay for shelter and medicine for her cat.
‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is showing at the Sebastiani Theatre. Rated R. Running time 1:47. Visit www.sebastianitheatre.com.