I’ve never liked Melissa McCarthy as an actor. Although her box office track record suggests she has a lot of fans, her appeal has always baffled me.
Not only has McCarthy starred in more bad movies than I could count (well, I could go to her Internet Movie Database page and count them, but I have a review to write), she laces her films with ridiculous, amateurish improv.
I’m struggling to avoid using the word “stupid” here because it’s a crutch for writers who don’t have a decent vocabulary, but it fits McCarthy’s filmography like a glove. (I’m not only at a loss for words, I can’t come up with an original simile.)
So, imagine my surprise as I watched “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” and found myself loving McCarthy’s performance as troubled writer Lee Israel.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is based on Israel’s biographical account of her crime spree in New York City in the 1990s.
Actually, it was more of a stroll than a spree. Desperate for a paycheck after her biography of Estee Lauder tanks, Israel stumbles onto a way to make money by forging letters by famous dead writers and selling them to Big Apple book dealers. (I thought “crime spree” would make it sound more exciting.)
The forgeries are works of deviant art that only a biographer with Israel’s wit and insight could have composed.
“Alan told me to write and apologize. So, I am doing that now,” an inspired Israel hammers out on a typewriter as she forges a letter by Dorothy Parker. “I have a hangover that is a real museum piece. I’m sure, then, that I must have said something terrible. To save me this kind of exertion in the future, I am thinking of having little letters runoff saying, ‘Can you ever forgive me?’”
Part of the fun of watching “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is seeing Israel initially get away with her outlandish scheme, which eventually included stealing authentic letters from library archives to sell. The ‘90s wasn’t that long ago, but I guess it was a different, more trusting time. Still, if I didn’t know the film was based on a true story, I would have dismissed it as absurd.
But I still would have loved McCarthy in it. Somehow, she took a gruff, miserable, unlikable bear and made her a pleasure to watch. As McCarthy flawlessly inhabits Israel’s skin, she takes the audience on an emotional journey that spans anger, outrage, depression, inspiration, elation, anxiety and more.
McCarthy is stunning in a scene in which she begs her agent for an advance and then unleashes a torrent of anger when she’s denied. And McCarthy’s portrayal of Israel’s unshakable sadness and detachment from others is heartbreaking in a scene where a bookseller who adores Israel’s writing makes a romantic overture but is rebuffed.
But most of the time, I just stared at the screen and smiled. Even in Israel’s saltiest moments, McCarthy imbues the woman with sympathy and deliciously dry humor. None of McCarthy’s past roles suggests she would have been capable of a performance of this caliber.
Just as good as McCarthy is Richard Grant as Jack Hock, an aimless soul and old acquaintance who worms his way into Israel’s life and eventually aids her in her criminal pursuits. Like McCarthy, Grant takes a broken person who seems to barely have a spark of life left in him and turns him into a shining presence on the screen.
Both actors are helped by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty’s witty, deftly written screenplay. The marriage of dialogue and leading character is perfect, which leads me to believe the writing duo must have lifted many of their words from the pages of Israel’s own book detailing her criminal deeds.
Indeed, it felt as though the spirit of the late Israel possessed the very words the actors spoke, and therefore the film itself. As a result, I laughed often and listened intently, not wanting to miss a single line.
As I come to the end of this review, I feel less like a critic and more like someone who’s saying, “I just saw the best film! You have to see it.” I don’t know if “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is the best film of 2018, but it’s certainly one of my favorites, and I do hope you see it.
That won’t be easy, as its engagement in theaters has been very limited, so watch for it to appear via VOD soon.
I especially recommend “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” to people who have never been a fan of McCarthy as an actor. Maybe, like me, you’ll walk away saying, “I really like her!”