(Photo by Mary Cybulski for Fox Searchlight)
CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?— 4 STARS
At several points within Can You Ever Forgive Me? various characters verbally depreciate the worth of Melissa McCarthy’s Lee Israel. At the same time that she was notoriously forging the candid writing of bygone celebrities for profit, the pompous high horse types she intersects with cast judgments like “no one is going to read or pay money for a Lee Israel letter.” Lo and behold, look where Lee Israel is now. Her criminal memoir has become a prestigious awards season motion picture on tap to make millions more than the couple of hundred or thousands of bucks she ever got for a novel or the fake or authentic private letters she produced would ever net. Our own laughs and the last laughs now belong to Lee Israel.
Featuring a fabulous performance of floundering from Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a cheeky yet contemplative biopic of a struggling artist who would find more joy and worth falsifying human connections that forging real ones of her own. Written filmmaker Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Tony winner Jeff Whitty (Avenue Q), this film scratches the right backs of docile cats to create the warmest possible portrait of a reprehensible cat lady one character causticly felt necessary to label as a “horrible c — t.” This film is a winner for being able to wash those impressions away for posterity with pours of candor and scotch.
Around 1992, Lee Israel’s career as a biographer and profiler for books and magazines was declining from its peak. She thumbs her nose at the pretentious lot of her high-end writer peers, including the new millionaire poster child Tom Clancy, who play the modern publicity game necessary to sell their wares. Lee is profanely antisocial and had been stumbling around a biography for vaudevillian Fanny Brice. Much to the chagrin of her dismissive and celeb-chasing agent Marjorie (Saturday Night Live original Jane Curtin), no one wants to buy or stake a writer or person as gratingly difficult as Lee with content no one cares about.
LESSON #1: HOW YOU CARRY YOURSELF MIRRORS HOW YOU TREAT OTHERS — Potty-mouthed to no end, Lee finds herself fired from a dead-end desk job and several months late on her rent for the fly-infested apartment she shares with her newly sick cat. Lee makes no effort to be liked and therefore has no real friendships or lasting relationships. The mess she keeps is the mess she is and it shows. The entire picture is a layered and smart personification of wallowing misery in human form.
The situation forces Lee to sell parts of her book collection and personal trinkets, including a handwritten letter she received from Katharine Hepburn. The one-of-a-kind piece and a lucky library discovery of a Noel Coward letter fetch a reasonably pretty penny and trigger an epiphany for a money-making venture. Putting her writing talent to use and enlisting old typewriters and stationary samples for materials to look the part, Lee begins to forge fake personal notes from famous people and sell them to affluent and gullible dealers and collectors.
Fueled by brown liquor rocks glasses of drowned sorrows, Lee runs into an old acquaintance named John Hock, a foppish and suave gay adulterer played by Swazi-Brit mainstay Richard E. Grant. The two find good company drinking together and become mutual confidantes and supportive cheerleaders for their respective swindles. With his sterling blue eyes, wide smile, and sly wit, Grant steals the show as the slick rascal sauntering New York to have all the fun McCarthy’s character is not, a period, sadly, that can only last so long before the law catches up to the scam. Richard might be showing off, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? charts as an “unglamourous” glamour project for superstar Melissa McCarthy.
Playing older than her age and reconfiguring her otherworldly energy for physical comedy, the A-lister is impressively superb focusing her performance into a slovenly and salty shell. Jack Nicholson once said “moving pictures move” in the audio commentary of Something’s Gotta Give. Melissa shows herself to be a student of that game. Watch the ever-present fiddles and fidgets of McCarthy, like the way she moves about a room or the way she contorts to drink her scotch or pet her cat. Marvel how effortlessly and believably she portrays loneliness, contempt, fear, and more without saying a word or falling on her ass for gags.
Enormous credit goes to director Marielle Heller, last seen wowing audiences with The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Her sharp senses assign the right tone and consistency at every turn, like the perfect pairing of Jeri Southern’s longing ballad “I Thought of You Last Night” during the opening credits. Normally in a dramedy like this, a few scenes here and there feel shoehorned in as show-off moments to appease actors or answer conventional expectations that shift the tone for the sake of easy gags meant to balance the solemnity. Heller and that script from Holofcener and Whitty never cave for the low-hanging fruit, instead staying with the built-in dazzlement of the true figure’s story. This richer material of Can You Ever Forgive Me? provides a remarkable display of fulfilled promise for its lead actress.
LESSON #3: BEING SOMETHING MORE — The Lee Israel character is a coward to criticism which keeps her from improving and climbing towards professional success. At one point, Lee receives the punchy retort of “you can be an asshole when you’re famous” implying that she has to change to be something more. An opposing parallel is also happening off-screen with Melissa McCarthy stepping out of her usual slapstick wheelhouse to improve as a performer.
McCarthy showed intriguing glimpses of her capacity for drama and dramedy in St. Vincent alongside Bill Murray a few years ago. The capacity was there. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a new cornerstone for Melissa. Her scenes of blossoming friendship and flattering affection with Dolly Wells’ bookshop owner Anna in this film are some of the best work of McCarthy’s career. She matches the moment and nuance without trying to inflate it into something louder or funnier than it needs to be. If McCarthy can continue this maturation and start trading one or two raunchy romps for introspection and challenge like this, she could become the one of the best American actresses of her generation. Watch out. This might just be the second coming of Robin Williams. Add a “yet” in there somewhere if you must, but the potential is real.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#737)