For a comedian like Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey, it takes “serious” roles to get respect, but not so Melissa McCarthy, who earned an Oscar nomination for her breakout performance in “Bridesmaids” and has been a critical darling ever since. Still, that shouldn’t stop her from branching out, and it’s our gain that she does in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” an unexpectedly profound, incredibly true dramedy in which she plays Lee Israel, a miserable Manhattan author who resorted to forging letters by famous writers in order to pay the bills — and found the basis for her most successful book in the process.
Dowdy, half-soused, and frowning for nearly the entire running time, McCarthy earns nearly as many laughs playing this curmudgeonly cat lady as she does in her more irrepressible comedic parts. But, of course (and this is why critics love watching cut-ups reveal their more introspective side), it’s the human side of the character that makes this McCarthy’s best performance to date, revealing haunting insights into friendship, loneliness, and creative insecurity. That it does so from a uniquely female perspective is a bonus at this particular moment.
Consider the scene early on when Lee crashes a party at her agent’s fancy New York apartment. There, at the center of the room, is Tom Clancy, who bloviates, “’Writer’s block’ is a term invented by the writing community to justify their laziness. My success is nothing more than that I have the dedication and stamina to sit and get the work done.” Lee harumphs as she passes (she harumphs a lot in this movie, finding it easier to resent others than to change her own ways), but it’s a revealing moment. As the saying goes, “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man.” Though it never hammers the point, this movie — co-written by a woman (Nicole Holofcener) and helmed by one as well (“Diary of a Teenage Girl” director Marielle Heller) — poignantly reminds that men never seem to appreciate how good they have it, even if no one made things more difficult for Lee Israel than Lee Israel made them for herself.
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Prior to 1991, the 51-year-old author enjoyed some publishing success, writing biographies on the likes of Tallulah Bankhead, Dorothy Kilgallen, and Estée Lauder. But no one wanted her next book, which was to be about vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice, and she was getting desperate — which in Lee’s case, meant that her already unpleasant demeanor became even more combative with the few people she had in her corner.
In a twist that seems just a bit too fortuitous (and that makes her subsequent criminal career appear almost accidental, rather than calculated), she stumbles upon a pair of letters written by Brice while researching her subject, stealing them from the library and selling them to a local bookshop owner (Dolly Wells) for a nice sum — even nicer, she finds, when she embellishes the second with a witty postscript of her own invention. And so begins a lucrative hobby composing letters “written by” her favorite literary figures — letters whose value scales in direct proportion to their content.
Because Lee herself was a frustrated writer, she channeled her wit into her work, allowing the late Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman, and Dorothy Parker to take credit for some of her best zingers (like the one that gives the film its title). Whether true or not, Hunter S. Thompson is said to have retyped F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” to get a sense for how it felt to write a masterpiece. Perhaps Lee Israel had a similar experience in channeling the voices of her idols. In many ways, her most celebrated book is the one she wrote about the three-year period, during which she forged more than 400 letters (even going so far as to steal and copy some from archives).
But that’s ignoring the most immediate benefit McCarthy conveys in the film: Lee was an incredibly solitary person, having long since alienated her former lover (who appears late in the film in a scene that suggests the bitter Lee had rewritten her own history most of all), and yet, she opened up somewhat during her letter-writing days. It was then that the hard-drinking misanthrope happened to be reunited with Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, crackling good in his most outrageous role since “Withnail & I”), a fellow alcoholic and New York gadfly who became both a friend and an accomplice during this period, assisting Lee in selling her letters after the dealers started to get suspicious.
Watching the trailer for “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” one gets the impression that Fox Searchlight is trying to hide (or at least downplay) the homosexual side of this story: Lee was a lesbian, while the openly gay Jack can hardly pass a fire hydrant without asking for its phone number. Together, they make a fabulous duo, a pair of outsiders hilariously passing judgment on polite society, taking platonic comfort each other’s company — they would go out to bars and amuse themselves making crank calls to people they hated — rather than putting themselves out there romantically (although Jack enjoys his flings, the old rapscallion). McCarthy makes Lee’s longing for companionship felt in a series of visits to her favorite bookshop, culminating in a date with Wells’ character that she rather painfully manages to sabotage (McCarthy’s real-life husband, Ben Falcone, appears as the most foolish of the collectors to buy Israel’s letters).
Certainly, Heller shows enormous affection for Lee, whom most of us probably couldn’t stand if we met her on the street. Nor would we want to spend two minutes in her apartment — a pack rat’s paradise, chock-full of filing cabinets and crawling with flies, where years of cat feces have accumulated under the bed. Made up almost entirely of moth-colored browns and itchy-looking gray fabrics, the costumes and production design contribute an enormous assist to defining McCarthy’s character (one desperately wants to open the windows on the movie to let in some fresh air), though it takes an actress as delightful as she to make such a woman not just forgivable but downright lovable.