Melissa McCarthy does way more than just make us laugh in the darkly comedic biopic “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”: She gives a supremely soulful and career-best performance as an unlikely literary criminal.
McCarthy is full of caustic wit and vulnerable insecurity as the cat-loving, human-tolerating Lee Israel, a renowned celebrity biographer in the 1970s and ’80s who in hard times turned to forging the letters of Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and other personalities – and got caught.
The film doesn’t just unfold this one woman’s life as page-turning cautionary tale. Splendidly directed by Marielle Heller, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” feels worn and lived in – in a good way – with a world of musty vintage tones and bar-room desperation given emotional life through McCarthy and a super supporting turn from Richard E. Grant.
From her beginning scenes being canned from a copywriting gig, McCarthy’s misanthrope is an acerbic delight, a hoot to watch and other superlatives the real Israel would probably despise. Irked by the sight of groupies huddled around best-selling superstar Tom Clancy at a dinner party, she wants to get her reputation back, but her agent (Jane Curtin) rarely returns her phone calls and Lee’s idea for a bio of Fanny Brice isn’t exactly burning up the Manhattan publishing scene.
Broke and needing cash to take care of her sick cat, Lee takes original Brice letters she found doing research to bookshops buying such collectibles. They tell her that the finds are cool but more interesting letters would command more money. With a phalanx of vintage typewriters and her own talent for words, Lee finds financial success by manufacturing fake letters that are as charming as they are completely illegal.
At a local pub she befriends street hustler Jack Hock (Grant), a fast-talking British rapscallion who’s one of the few people Lee actually likes. Jack is as flamboyant as she is frumpy, and he starts as a confidante with loose morals but becomes an accomplice in her shenanigans as the FBI starts nosing around and usually interested buyers are wary of her game.
As the roguish Jack, Grant sparkles every time he shows up onscreen, dishing out vicious bon mots and acting as a perfect complement for McCarthy’s character: As gay intellectuals in New York, they understand each other in a way no one else could. Lee also strikes up a connection with bookstore owner Anna (Dolly Wells), who recognizes and respects her writing talent, and in scenes with that pair especially, it’s hard not to feel empathy – and root – for Lee to find redemption.
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Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s adaptation of Israel’s 2008 memoir “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” features plenty of withering one-liners for McCarthy, but also dialogue that peels away her complex character: Lee was ultimately proud of her forgeries that captured the “voices” of her subjects (“I’ll have you know, I was a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker”) though quiet recognition was always more important than actual fame (“When I die, who cares. I just want someone to feed my cat”).
In McCarthy’s capable hands, Lee is neither hero nor villain but instead a relatable, unlovable grouch who’s actually pretty easy to love. And it’s the kind of Oscar-ready role of a lifetime that, because there is so much depth and pathos, can’t come again soon enough.
If you go
What: “Can You Ever Forgive Me” screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival
When: Jan. 4 at 9:45 a.m.
Where: Annenberg Theater at the Palm Springs Art Museum, 101 N. Museum Dr., Palm Springs
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Rated: R for language including some sexual references and brief drug use
The complete lineup is available online at psfilmfest.org. For more information, call (760) 778-8979 or (800) 898-7256 or visit psfilmfest.org.
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