Lately, Melissa McCarthy has ridden the rails between SNL genius and projects that were beneath her immense talents, projects like The Happytime Murders. Here, in Can You Ever Forgive Me? she’s given an eccentric character befitting of her love for the loud and recluse.
McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a once respected writer who’s fallen on hard times. Israel isn’t what we’d call a “people person.” She’s made for the diligence and nose to the grindstone research that comes with professional writing. Being adored is secondary to writing well. In short, Israel wouldn’t be your first candidate for celebrity author. Lewd and crude, she’s behind on three months worth of rent, has a fly infestation in her apartment, and only finds comfort and company in her elderly cat.
Backed against a wall, she decides to sell a letter written to her from Katherine Hepburn. It’s here that she finds that the letter memorabilia business is quite lucrative. Still, it’s not until she finds a letter from Dorothy Parker tucked between the pages of a book that she begins to forge letters from diseased literary greats.
However, the overall scheme of Israel’s “business” is secondary to the character. In fact, it’s the least exciting portion of the film. Instead, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is character driven. The focus is on the little twists, details, and pangs of solitude McCarthy imbues within this woman. One such scene, involves Israel having dinner with Anna (Dolly Wells), a local bookstore owner she’s been selling counterfeit letters to. The script to Can You Ever Forgive? shows incredible restraint. Yes, this is a biopic so the particulars can’t be changed too much, but this dinner scene could have easily been used to dull the character. Instead, Israel remains stand-offish, painfully awkward, and quite simply, unintentionally mean. There’s no redemptive love that can ‘heal’ this person. There’s only the person. McCarthy plays these moments to perfection, tip toeing to a subtle beat (a rarity for her).
When Jack Hock (Richard Grant) is inserted Can You Ever Forgive Me turns into an almost anti-buddy flick. Hock is a charming, happy, and homeless lush of a grifter. Since Israel is also an alcoholic, they strike up a quick friendship at a bar. Hock, in his little ways, understands Israel. He has the same penchant as her to cause trouble, such as prank calling a book dealer to tell him his house is on fire. Like Israel, Hock is also an outcast and one of the few people who considers her a “posh” writer. That’s far different from her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin), who declares that no one wants a Lee Israel book about Fanny Brice.
Grant is utterly brilliant in a role that seems like a gift from the heavens. Wretchedly underrated in every conceivable way, Grant may very well earn an Oscar nomination in conjunction with McCarthy’s. We should dislike and distrust his character as much as Israel does, but Grant is so damn charming. Maybe it’s the accent?
And as Hock and Israel’s relationship rises, falls, and rises again, McCarthy’s acerbic portrayal of the author becomes more personal and biting. We come to sympathize with Israel not because the film portrays her as sympathetic, but because we’re allowed to see her as a flawed individual. Human. And so often when these over-the-top roles come along, they quickly become one-dimensional. They quickly become the opposite of the perceived attitude, lacking the genuine component of their nature that made them attractive to begin with. That’s the magic of McCarthy here. She could go for broke, but she never does. One gets the sense that’s she’s always fighting against her instincts, though we’re never made aware of such internal struggles. In short, it’s pure and brilliant acting by her.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the film we’ve all been waiting for from McCarthy, and the quality and the wait is well worth forgiving for.