Recently, in writing about “A Star Is Born,” I remarked on how unexceptional it was for a singer – in this case, Lady Gaga – to excel as a dramatic actor. It is no less unexceptional for a comedic actor to excel in drama, a truism demonstrated yet again by Melissa McCarthy in the marvelous “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” And yet, given the slam-bang slapstick featured in so many of her movies, I have to admit the subtlety and fullness of her performance in this film did hit me as a shock to the system.
McCarthy plays the real-life author Lee Israel, who was a successful celebrity magazine profiler and bestselling biographer in the 1970s and ’80s until readers’ tastes turned trendier and she found herself near-unemployable and drinking heavily.
Without making a big deal about it, the film – directed by Marielle Heller and written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty based on Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name – conveys what it’s like to be a writer on the edge at a time and place (the New York literary world of the 1990s) when to be unfashionable and yet in the thick of things was particularly painful.
It’s clear from the start that McCarthy is not about to recap her usual slapstick ways. Lee’s brittle misanthropy, and not-so-quiet desperation, is everywhere evident. She attends the fancy party of the agent (Jane Curtin) who no longer returns her calls and steals an expensive winter coat from the coatroom. She tries, and fails, to sell a pile of books to a used bookshop in order to scrape together enough money to pay the rent and tend to her sick cat – her only trusted companion.
This could all seem drearily Dickensian except that McCarthy gives Lee’s loneliness a spikiness that rescues it from pathos. It makes sense that this woman, beaten down but not self-pitying, would concoct a scheme that, for a time, would salvage her. Through happenstance she discovers that a thriving market exists for signed letters from famous authors and actors. Utilizing a multiplicity of old typewriters, she proceeds to forge highly readable and witty letters from the likes of Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, Marlene Dietrich, and many others. (In 1991 and 1992, when the movie takes place, the forgeries totaled around 400 letters.) Eventually she took on an accomplice, the flamboyant and aptly named Jack Hock, played by Richard E. Grant with perfect desiccated panache. Jack, like Lee, is gay, and he is even more of a con artist, and even more down on his luck, than she is. Once again the filmmakers defy our expectations: This is not a cute caper about two rascally rogues. Beneath Jack’s brio, his loneliness is just as palpable as Lee’s.
McCarthy shows us the fierce pride inside Lee’s con artistry. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she crows after composing an especially clever forgery. Although the FBI, which ultimately caught up with her, might disagree, as would the many dealers and buyers she bilked, Lee’s forgeries were meticulously creative fictions. In a way, they represented some of her best writing. In her lowest moments, when she is not lambasting megasellers like Tom Clancy, she doubts she is a real writer at all. Her forgeries allow her to stand in the same light as the celebrated writers she could never be, and in her eyes she bests them. (The ironies came full circle when, six years before her death in 2014, she published the memoir of her felonious ways to critical acclaim.)
I loved McCarthy in her breakthrough movie role in “Bridesmaids,” and I always look forward to her appearances on “Saturday Night Live.” But her movies for the most part since “Bridesmaids” have been terrible, including “The Boss,” “The Heat,” “Identity Thief,” “Tammy,” “Spy,” “Life of the Party,” and “The Happytime Murders.” That she is the best thing in these movies isn’t saying much. Like Eddie Murphy, another potentially great actor who perpetually underuses his gifts, or, I fear, Tiffany Haddish, who in the space of little more than a year is already piling up a roster of stinkers undeserving of her brilliance, McCarthy can be her own worst enemy in her choice of material.
But no more, I wager, after “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a movie in which she doesn’t sell out her talent by becoming all serioso in the manner of actors panting for Oscars but instead extends the forcefulness of her comic persona into darker realms even she might not have been aware she could inhabit. Grade: A- (Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use.)