Melissa McCarthy unleashes her inner misanthrope in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and we may never look at her the same way again.
Sure, the sad, lonely and foul-mouthed persona she’s cultivated in a few too many films is a big part of her version of the forger, thief and writer Lee Israel. But anger at her world, the limits put on it by Israel’s disdain for the human race, career misdirection, alcohol consumption, limited talent and frumpy appearance carries McCarthy through this performance, justifiably earning her Oscar buzz.
Israel was a biographer-for-hire in the ’70s and 80s, a freelance writer who got a book on reporter and game show panelist Dorothy Kilgallen on the best seller lists, but whose Estee Lauder bio was abandoned by book sellers practically before publication.
In 1991, when we meet her, she’s drinking at work, copy-editing with kids half her age and cursing too freely to keep the job. Her cat is old and sick, she’s behind on the rent. Her agent (Jane Curtin, prim and perfect) rarely returns her calls and nobody but nobody is interested in her writing about the nearly-forgotten vaudevillian Fanny Brice, already the subject of “Funny Girl” and “Funny Lady” movies by Barbra Streisand.
She can’t make nice, flatter, kiss up or “play the author’s game” to reach success. All she can do is remind us all of how there is nothing more distressing than the impatient hum of an electric typewriter when you’re at your written wit’s end.
“I’m a 51 year-old woman who likes cats better than people,” she grouses. She’s living in near squalor in one of the most expensive cities on Earth with no ready means of support.
Meeting a fellow barfly (Richard E. Grant, the life of the party), a gay ne’er-do-well who has crossed paths with her at this or that publishing party, doesn’t help. Drunk or sober, she’s broke. She has to sell her personal letter from Katharine Hepburn (she profiled her for a magazine in the ’60s) just to get her cat cared for.
She knows letters from the rich and famous have value. Stumbling across a couple of Fanny Brice letters, typewritten and tucked into some Brice books she pores over in the New York Public Library, gives Israel the inspiration.
As we’ve seen her pilfer from her agent’s apartment at a party, the leap isn’t a great one. Lee Israel will turn her writing toward mimicking the letters of figures she can research, whose voices she can copy, selling witty, jokey and blushingly personal notes for hard cash.
Brice, Noel Coward or Dorothy Parker, no problem. And when she gets away with it once or twice, she invests in the process — tracing signatures, reproducing personalized stationery, buying every old typewriter she can find, matching each typewriter to the author she is impersonating.
You had to be clever like that in 1991, even if you didn’t yet have the Internet around to unmask your crimes.
Israel could be funny and biting, so she made bon mot queen Dorothy Parker (“What fresh hell is this?”) a specialty.
“I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!”
If there’s guilt, maybe it’s because she took advantage of book-seller/letter buyer who is also a fan (Dolly Wells) and kind of cute. Rooking Stephen Spinella and Ben Falcone, playing other dealers, is guilt-free.
There’s a touch of McCarthy’s Sean Spicer impersonation in Israel — perpetually irked at the world when really, she’s the one with the big problem. It’s an understated performance flatteringly framed in close-ups by director Marielle Heller. Co-writer Nicole Holofcener (“Friends With Money,” “Lovely and Amazing”) specializes in layered, empathetic roles for women, which had to help.
Grant is the cinema’s favorite gay British best friend, and he makes a wonderfully louche lush as Jack Hock, Israel’s only friend. But being a homeless, aged coke-dealing Lothario doesn’t bode well for how dependable he’s going to be when the going gets tough.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is based on Israel’s memoir, one of those reminders that in New York publishing, a name’s a name and when you’re in you’re in. Whatever price she paid for her crimes wasn’t high, and there were plenty of suckers who believed her later book and never bothered to fact-check her earlier works.
Short cutting cheats are repeat offenders, and I’d take anything she signed her name to with a bunch of grains of salt.
But “Forgive Me” makes for a fun yarn, one undercut with tinge of sadness. Perhaps only a comic as funny and salty as McCarthy could have made Israel funny, cunning, crooked and dysfunctionally depressed, so likably unlikable in the process.
MPAA Rating: R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin, Stephen Spinella, Dolly Wells
Running time: 1:46