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Five Cent Cine At Home: Can You Ever Forgive me?

Available: Streaming, Cinemax, HBO Now and others; Rent or purchase Amazon, YouTube and elsewhere.

What’s to forgive?

When we’re introduced to Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), she’s just been fired (apparently from “The New Yorker” magazine, where she edits copy in a cubicle) for her bad attitude and foul language. She’s already an unhappy, acerbic, 51-year-old alcoholic loner living in a filthy Upper West Side apartment in New York City with her only “friend,” a sickly cat who defecates under the bed and fails to return her affection. Out of work, she can’t pay her rent or afford toilet paper. She begins to steal, starting with a needed winter coat (and the toilet paper) at her agent’s (Jane Curtin) upper-crust party.

Into this slough of despond come a few rays of hope and possibility. One is an offer of friendship (and perhaps more), from a younger bookstore owner, Anna (a wistful Dolly Wells). Anna’s offer is more than Lee can handle. A melancholy bar scene produces another relationship, this one with a witty, charismatic, cocaine-using, gay, homeless low-life, Jack Hock. Played to zany perfection by Richard E. Grant, Jack can make one appreciate an immoral thief. He and Lee share a dislike of the elite; she stole one of their coats, he peed on their furs. Welcome to the buddy film.

As unlikely as it is that extrovert Jack can help introvert Lee, their story is the emotional heart of the film, raising the issue of whether Lee is capable of caring about or opening up to the people around her, whoever they might be. Although a quick take on Lee is that she’s an incorrigible misanthrope, she’s actually neither unlikeable nor insensitive. In a speech she makes at the end of the film to the judge who will sentence her, she reveals herself to be quite self-aware. Lee may not have a heart of gold (thank goodness), but she does have a heart. McCarthy is at her best in this speech, and her acting is solid throughout the film, capturing Lee’s neurotic interiority. McCarthy has been talked about for a possible Oscar nomination, and, while she’s very good here, perhaps it’s the conversion of a superb comic into a serious actor that’s drawing that level of attention.

However well done, the emotional valence of the film is ancillary to the key element of the plot: Lee’s venture into white-collar crime, specifically the creating and forging of letters written by deceased sharp-tongued celebrities—Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, and Noel Coward among them — and the sale of those letters to unsuspecting dealers. Welcome to the caper film.

Because the film is ‘based on a true story,’ one can assume that most of this illicit activity really happened, that Lee Israel forged and sold some 400 letters.

There’s tension here — will she get caught? — but also repetition (writing, forging, selling, repeat). Because the film is “based on a true story,” one can assume that most of this illicit activity really happened, that Lee Israel forged and sold some 400 letters. That’s a lot of crime, presumably with real economic consequences for the victims. Except there appear to be no consequences of note, and we’re shown no one being damaged. The implication is that those who were scammed were elites who could bear the cost of the fraud, as well as professionals who should have known better.

The most profound result of Lee’s tenure as a forger is that she discovers her ‘voice.’ There’s a tragic element to this discovery.

The most profound result of Lee’s tenure as a forger is that she discovers her “voice.” There’s a tragic element to this discovery. The voice she finds is less than original, associated with Parker and Coward and that earlier generation of writers. But there is also, for Lee, exhilaration. Her forgery career was “the best time of my life,” she explains to the judge, a time that allowed her to understand that she could use her essence—the same foul-mouthed, barbed wit that got her fired — to make money in the literary marketplace. There are signs, too — a cloying touch, perhaps—that the experience has given Lee a new emotional maturity: tears with an ailing (from AIDS) Jack in the bar, a renewed interest in reading the bookseller’s short-story manuscript.

“Can you ever forgive me?” the title asks, repeating one of the lines Lee created for a forged Dorothy Parker letter. What’s to forgive? Crime pays!

Date: 2018

Director: Marielle Heller

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, and Jane Curtin.

Runtime: 106 minutes

Oscars: Nominated for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Melissa McCarthy); Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Richard E. Grant); and Best Adapted Screenplay (Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty).

With movie theaters closed, Five Cent Cine is shifting gears. “2 film critics” will continue our usual reviewing schedule of about 3 movies per month, now labeled Five Cent Cine At Home, with all of those films available streaming or for rent or purchase. Each review will list (at the top) the source(s) for you to access the film in your own living room or bedroom.

In addition, we’ll be posting a “Streamer of the Week,” a review from our catalogue (more than 110 reviews dating to mid-2016) of a film available for streaming—a way to revisit a film you’ve already seen or to decide you would enjoy.

Also see reviews on…

The Lighthouse

Eighth Grade

The Traitor (Il Traditore)

Free Solo

Never Rarely Sometimes Always

Sorry to Bother You


Hidden Figures

Ford v Ferrari

Captain Fantastic

First Cow


Ordinary Love

Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Uncut Gems

Les Misérables

The Last Black Man in San Francisco



Little Women

Marriage Story

Queen & Slim

The Irishman


Cold Brook

Jojo Rabbit

Pain & Glory ( Dolor y Gloria)



Downton Abbey

Ad Astra

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

The Goldfinch

Good Boys

Written by 2 Film Critics

2 Film Critics

William Graebner is Emeritus Professor of History, State University of New York, Fredonia, where he taught courses on film and American culture. He is the author or co-author of 11 books and more than 50 scholarly articles, including essays on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “The Poseidon Adventure,” and zombie films as they relate to the Holocaust. Dianne Bennett, the first woman to head a large U.S. law firm, is a retired U.S. tax lawyer.

Dianne and Bill were early and passionate attendees at the Toronto Film Festival, and today enjoy the film scenes of Los Angeles, Rome, London, and Buffalo, New York. They began reviewing films for the Rome-based website “TheAmerican/inItalia” in 2016, have maintained a blog on Rome for a decade, and published two alternative guidebooks to the Eternal City. They still can’t resist going to the movies, not to mention the ensuing discussions, sometimes heated, over a bottle of Arneis at the nearest wine bar.

​And that's just the beginning of our reviewing process. For one or two hours we discuss the film, as one of us takes notes. The notetaker transcribes the notes and prints two copies. Dianne or Bill (usually depending on who had the most compelling understanding of the film, or who was most taken with it) writes the first draft of the review--supposedly taking into account the views of the other--which is followed by 3, 4, or even 7 more drafts. At some point, sometimes days later, when we're both comfortable with the result (or accepting of it, anyway), it's done.

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