By Richard Ades
Lee Israel’s abrasive and self-destructive personality is established in the first scene of Can You Ever Forgive Me? While working a late-night job, Lee (Melissa McCarthy) hits the wrong person with an F-bomb and is immediately fired.
This launches a downward spiral that threatens to expel Lee from the New York apartment she shares with her ailing cat. The spiral ends only when it’s replaced by a moral and legal spin out of control.
The fateful catalyst is a letter from a famous author that falls into Lee’s hands. Attempting to sell it to a dealer in literary ephemera, she’s told it would be worth more if only the subject matter weren’t so bland. An author herself—though one who has trouble even giving her latest books away—Lee seizes on the idea of manufacturing spicy correspondence supposedly written by luminaries such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward.
Her success in this dishonest new venture is ironic. After being told by her agent (Jane Curtin) that she won’t attract readers until she finds her own literary voice, Lee learns she can pull in big bucks by aping other writers’ voices.
Directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) and based on the real-life Israel’s story, Can You Ever Forgive Me? gives McCarthy the chance to prove she has something to offer beyond her usual comic shtick. She doesn’t slough off the opportunity. Other than a brief scene near the end, McCarthy totally immerses herself in the skin of a woman who is not above lying and cheating others, yet is still her own worst enemy.
Though officially a lesbian, Lee is so leery of human interaction that she undermines every relationship or potential relationship. When a bookseller and would-be author (Dolly Wells) shows obvious interest in getting to know her, she responds with caution and defensiveness. We can’t admire Lee, but McCarthy’s portrayal makes it impossible not to feel for her. Her performance is by turns funny and touching.
If McCarthy’s portrayal is impressive for its depth and deviation from her usual output, co-star Richard E. Grant’s performance is memorable for its bravura spirit. Grant plays Jack Hock, an aging loner who seems to get through life on the strength of his wit and wits. After meeting in a gay bar, Jack and Lee are drawn together by their mutual fear of commitment and love of nasty pranks and alcohol. Though they obviously aren’t good for each other, they become inseparable.
Through all this, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s screenplay moves nimbly between acid humor and pathos. But it’s McCarthy’s sensitive performance and Heller’s equally sensitive direction that make it possible to care about Israel because we can see her moral compass is defective but not entirely beyond repair.
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Can You Ever Forgive Me? (rated R) opens Nov. 8 at the Drexel Theatre, Gateway Film Center, Marcus Crosswoods Cinema and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.