In a recent trend, Melissa McCarthy has been finding herself in bad comedies from “The Boss” to “The Happytime Murders,” and I’ve been concerned if her “Bridesmaids” sparkle is gone. But like most comedy stars (Adam Sandler, Robin Williams, Will Ferrell, etc.), McCarthy is given a dramatic role, which allows her to balance her humor and emotions without overdosing on them. “Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a serious, yet wickedly funny biopic about Leonore Carol Israel (1939-2014), or Lee Israel for short, an author who has forged letters from famous writers.
The movie, based on her autobiography, takes place in 1991, and finds Lee Israel (McCarthy) in financial troubles. Her cat is sick, she’s months behind in her apartment rent, and her agent (Jane Curtin) tells her to improve on her behavior, as no one is gonna buy any books from her, especially since Tom Clancy is more popular. Then when she decides to write a book about Fanny Brice, she finds a letter written by her in a library book, and sells it for a profit. And to spice things up (based on the buyer’s taste), she begins to embellish more letters to make ends meet, and she succeeds.
Also in the film is Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock, a gay British writer and hustler, who becomes Lee’s friend and partner-in-crime. But eventually, the letters lands her on an FBI list, and their friendship is tested by greed and forgery, especially when she makes him sell the letters to the stores who refuse to buy anymore letters from her.
Most of the way through, I was eating up “Can You Ever Forgive Me’s” sense of humor and literary devices. It shows us Israel’s struggles and crimes, and McCarthy gives one of her best performances in the ways she’s funny, serious, and emotional. These adjectives are presented on the right level. Director Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and screenplay writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty) all guide McCarthy with the right intentions. And with great supporting work from Grant, you don’t know how lucky you are to see a great role from her.
I also admired the movie’s peaceful tone with the soundtrack (consisting of Peggy Lee, Dinah Washington, and Patti Page, among others), snowy New York areas, and attractive bars. I was ultimately relaxed while watching this movie.
Sure, it gets a little quiet towards the end, but most of the way through, I found myself rather enjoying “Can You Ever Forgive Me.” It’s patient, sentimental, funny, and smart; and being a Melissa McCarthy-starring film, we haven’t been getting much of them lately. You can’t always rely on her falling down for laughs; you have to rely on her for having her heart in the right place. That’s what she does here, and I commend her for that.