Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Fact-Based Drama Brings the Best of Melissa McCarthy

By Kim Hughes

Rating: A

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect part for Melissa McCarthy than Lee Israel, the alternately sympathetic and hostile protagonist of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, whose true story inspired this wildly satisfying jet-black dramedy.

Grant and McCarthy courting Oscar buzz.

Grant and McCarthy courting Oscar buzz.

McCarthy’s talent is towering and yet so few roles (excluding SNL appearances which feature dozens) really leverage her versatility. Can You Ever Forgive Me? gives platform to it all — funny but nihilistic, bleak, sardonic, knowing — with McCarthy disappearing and something else rising in her place. She isn’t just dowdy; McCarthy is fearlessly, spiritually foul, palpably lonely, itchy in her own skin and yet somehow never repellant.

The story, adapted by Nicole Holofcener (with Jeff Whitty) from Israel’s memoir, is also dynamite, and gloriously abetted by Richard E. Grant as Israel’s screamingly gay and felonious sidekick, Jack. These are awards-worthy performances under the direction of Marielle Heller whose excellent The Diary of a Teenage Girl from 2015 revealed someone capable of quarrying the female psyche.

It’s the early 1990s and Israel, a noted biographer, can’t raise a particle of excitement for her proposed portrait of long-deceased stage actress Fanny Brice. That a prevailing lack of interest in Brice isn’t readily apparent to Israel is the first clue our gal is out of step with the times. Israel’s abiding misanthropy, meanwhile, makes her a poor candidate for almost any other kind of work.

A chance discovery brings Israel to the dizzying world of literary letters (and the fetching shopkeepers who peddle them), where collectors worldwide pay handsome sums for personal missives from favourite deceased authors. So begins a career forging letters for sale.

Israel isn’t motivated by fame amongst the nerd glitterati. She’s broke, and her beloved cat desperately needs veterinary care. But as her forgeries become more elaborate — via a pile of period-specific typewriters and Israel’s own developed research and writing skills — she begins to view her talent in a new light.

After all, it takes a certain élan to persuasively conjure Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker. This can’t go on forever, of course, and no one likes being hoodwinked. But Israel’s crimes do ask whether skilful recreation constitutes an art form all its own. Fans of actors and persuasive Picasso knock-offs can chew on that for a while.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a wintery film in soul and in look; the chill of a snowy New York running through its characters like a seam. We want to lean in, get close. These characters are often seen huddling in smoky, wood-paneled bars, giddily talking shop.

Jack has recently been sprung from prison for robbery so we know what side of the law he prefers. An early scene finds Israel gamely stealing a coat at a chic party, a low-level move but one that points unequivocally to someone alert to opportunity in any form. Jack and Lee are the ultimate yin and yang of misconduct and afternoon chicanery over Herculean amounts of scotch. This is a superbly entertaining film by any metric.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? Directed by: Marielle Heller. Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Ben Falcone, Anna Deavere Smith, and Stephen Spinella. Opens wide October 26.