It shouldn’t be a surprise that Melissa McCarthy can act in a serious drama, too. Many people only know her from her broad comedies in this decade, some of them delightful (Bridesmaids, Spy), others less so (The Happytime Murders). However, I saw her well before that as the bubbly chef on TV’s Gilmore Girls and as a high-school student who’s used as a prop and doesn’t like it in the little-seen Pumpkin. She can dial it back when the occasion calls for it, and so she does in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, a delectable literary crime drama that opens at Cinemark Ridgmar this weekend.
Based on the memoir by the late Lee Israel, the story picks up in 1991, when Lee (McCarthy) is an alcoholic lesbian who used to be a best-selling biographer of show business celebrities such as Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen. Now, Lee’s self-effacing writing style no longer sells, her subjects are passé, and her miserable personality has driven away both romantic partners and financial success. That is, until she researches a new project on Fanny Brice and comes across some signed, typewritten letters from the legendary comedienne stuck in a library book. Lee sells the documents to booksellers for decent prices that become downright handsome when she adds her own typewritten postscripts to otherwise undistinguished notes. Soon, Lee is embarking on a career as a forger, producing fake letters from literary lights like Lillian Hellman, Noël Coward, and Dorothy Parker.
This is the second film by Marielle Heller. When I reviewed her first film, Diary of a Teenage Girl, I wondered whether her personal connection to that project’s material might make her a one-hit wonder. I’m happy to report that there’s no such danger of that. If this effort doesn’t have the visual splendor of Diary of a Teenage Girl, it is an efficient narrative that moves along at an unhurried pace, as Lee ropes in Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), an aging gay British party boy who is the closest thing she has to a friend, into helping her unload her merchandise.
Heller has the best quality a filmmaker can have: the ability to direct actors. The presence of Jane Curtin as Lee’s no-nonsense literary agent is a luxurious touch, but the lesser-known cast members here deliver as well. Dolly Wells contributes a poised turn as a bookseller who takes a romantic interest in Lee, while McCarthy’s real-life husband Ben Falcone finds his best-ever role as a shady bookseller who figures out what Lee’s up to and blackmails her. Anna Deavere Smith also turns up as an ex-girlfriend who meets with Lee when the law is about to catch up with her.
As for McCarthy, this role isn’t exactly a radical departure from her previous characters — the protagonist of Tammy is pretty close to Lee. The lead actress does mostly fine work as a crabby loner who hangs out in gay bars so she won’t be disturbed. Where she reaches true greatness is in a late scene as Lee stands up before a judge and realizes as she speaks that her flaws as a writer, especially her unwillingness to reveal herself in print, have led her to her life of crime. I wouldn’t want McCarthy to abandon comedy, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a nice change of pace that shows us what else she can do given the chance.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Starring Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. Written and directed by Marielle Heller, based on Lee Israel’s memoir. Rated R.