Melissa McCarthy may be known for broad, often raunchy comedy, but even her best and most likable comedic performances in films like Bridesmaids and Spy are built on nuanced substructures of sadness and plain human longing. Those elements are on hand in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, only this time they’re in service of playing a woman–real-life author and forger Lee Israel–who most people would find unpleasant to be around after five minutes. The fact that McCarthy makes her not just watchable but compelling and even sympathetic is a testament to her sometimes underappreciated abilities.
In a word, McCarthy is astonishing in this film, and may have delivered her best performance to date (she also deserves to be right in the thick of the Oscar race since we’re well into that season now) as Israel, out of work and a one-time biographer of fading pop culture and entertainment figures. Now her struggle to stay afloat in a very rough patch (no publisher wants her Fanny Brice biography) leads her to a life of crime. Initially she merely steals two letters of Brice’s that she stumbles upon and sells them to a collector, but she eventually begins forging letters from famous dead authors and celebrities herself, turning her transgressions into a lucrative business even as she teeters closer to discovery and disaster.
The film, directed in appropriately understated fashion by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) from a script by Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Jeff Whitty that’s based on Israel’s own memoir, never looks down on Israel, even though she is unrelentingly abrasive and dour, living in a dank, dirty apartment where cat shit is piling under the bed and empty bottles are piling everywhere else. Israel’s cat, in fact, is basically her only companion, at least until she meets Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a fellow drunk and would-be man about town whose own living habits are questionable. He becomes first a drinking buddy, then a friend, and finally a partner in crime.
Grant is exceptional as Jack, a fellow with a rakish charm who nevertheless cannot stop himself from making critical errors of judgment, and as he and Lee eventually warm up to each other it becomes evident just how disconnected from the world and lonely these two people really are. We catch a glimpse here and there of a nicer, happier person underneath Lee’s prickly exterior–in her concern for her sick cat or on a tentative first date with one of her buyers (Dolly Wells)–as well as vestiges of a past in which she might not have been as broken as she is now. Somehow the movie allows us to sense the way the world and Lee’s own considerable flaws have worn her down, and we feel for her.
The same goes for Grant, whose Jack is equal parts irrepressible and frustrating, and many of the movie’s best scenes are built around the interplay between these two. It’s hard to be alone in New York, and for these two gay single people with drinking problems–one of whom finds most human contact utterly distasteful–it’s even more challenging. Watching them open up ever so slightly to each other, even as they dole out snark to everyone else and map out even more ambitious scams (Lee ended up selling some 400 forged letters before the FBI caught up with her) is one of the film’s pleasures.
So too is seeing the Manhattan of nearly 30 years ago that Lee and Jack eke out their existence in. Although they have a tough time of it (until the illicit money starts rolling in), this is still a New York of neighborhood watering holes and antique book shops on seemingly every street, where rare tomes and letters from literary icons actually meant something. It’s hard to imagine such things having value of any kind now in a New York where unaffordable luxury skyscrapers, overpriced designer boutiques, and endless banks seem to sprout from the sidewalks like supersized weeds.
Nevertheless, living in the city was no picnic back then even if you could just get by, and McCarthy transmits the full weight of that burden in her undeniable work here. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is about the fear of being alone, destitute and forgotten, and the lengths that people will go to when that fear overwhelms them, even when it’s hard for them to admit that they can’t always make it on their own terms. Lee Israel is humbled but never totally beaten down, and by the time this thoughtful, acerbic movie is over, you’re willing to forgive her quite a lot.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is out in theaters Friday (October 19).
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