Melissa McCarthy has shown the potential for a role that deepens her screen presence for some time, but her brash, rambunctious performances have been restricted to broad comedies that usually fall short of exploring what such a character might be like under more realistic circumstances. At long last, she’s landed the right opportunity with “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, director Marielle Heller’s charming melancholic comedy about real-life writer-turned-criminal Lee Israel, who forged some 400 letters by dead celebrities and pawned them off until the FBI caught up with her scheme. A lonely, infuriated New York woman prone to turn her luck around no matter the cost, Israel provides the ideal template for McCarthy to project her talents onto a more sophisticated plane, and — complemented by a top-notch Richard E. Grant as Israel’s partner-in-crime — she rises to the occasion.
The movie opens in 1991, as the hard-drinking Israel gets fired from her day job and struggles to make rent at her dilapidated uptown apartment. Once a celebrated magazine journalist, she found some success writing biographies years ago, but her penchant for non-commercial subjects led to an interminable dry spell. Her latest pitch to tackle the life of Fanny Brice invites more than one blank stare. “We may disagree on what we consider fascinating,” her frustrated agent (Jane Curtin) says, when Israel storms her office to complain about Tom Clancy’s multimillion-dollar paycheck. “Oh, to be a white man who doesn’t even know he’s full of crap,” she sighs.
Israel wants her work to succeed on its own merits; she doesn’t believe in selling out, but needs an outlet for her talents that pays the bills. Her cat’s sick, her benevolent landlord’s losing his patience, and she can barely afford a decent meal. Salvation arrives from an unexpected direction: After fooling around with her typewriter one night, she discovers that she can easily forge letters by Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward, and others, selling them off for hundreds of dollars apiece. Suddenly, a daring new creative outlet materializes that sends her careening down a dangerous career path.
The movie takes its time allowing this scheme to take shape, building out Israel’s solitary existence to ground her actions in a credible place. The screenplay, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s memoir of the same name, shows the hallmarks of the funny-sad balance that distinguishes so many of Holofcener’s female-centric character studies. Israel certainly makes for an emotionally rich centerpiece, a 51-year-old gay single woman who would rather drink at home and pet her cat than let any new people into her life. The screenplay drops hints of one old relationship that went sour for that exact reason, setting up the arrival of her ideal wingman: At a grimy bar, she’s approached by Jack Hock (Grant, note-perfect), a catty raconteur and philandering street urchin who shares her alcoholism.
As the pair launch a friendship steeped in late-night bar sessions, she confides in him about her scheme, and for a time they’ve launched a foolproof operation. Heller, stepping up with a slick, inviting narrative after her audacious coming-of-age debut “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” presents the initial stages of the scheme with the ebullience of a heist movie. It’s so much fun to watch Israel get away with things that her immoral obsession becomes infectious.
As the movie tracks Heller through every step of her scheme, the story rolls along with a smooth jazz score and Brandon Trost’s bountiful New York City imagery, as Heller channels the dark urban milieu of vintage Woody Allen. Despite the audacious nature of Israel’s scheme and the eventual intrusion of the FBI, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” maintains an intimacy with Israel’s story and keeps the cast to a minimum. While her rambunctious chemistry with Grant dominates some of the best scenes, Israel also develops intriguing relationships with the various literary dealers she swindles, including a seedy blackmailer (McCarthy’s husband, Ben Falcone), and would-be writer Anna (Dolly Wells), a good-natured woman whose interest in Israel opens up the possibility that she hasn’t lost the chance for longterm companionship for good.
Of course, Israel’s self-destructive path eventually catches up with her, and Heller arrives at this predictable outcome with a satisfying emotional payoff. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” sticks to its contained story throughout, rarely going to surprising places, and probably doesn’t benefit from expectations of daring storytelling on par with its protagonist’s big gamble. However, McCarthy elevates the material at every opportunity, and whenever the camera lingers on her expressions, she’s a study in contradictions — tough and tender all at once, unsure which side of that spectrum to unleash. It’s dizzying to watch her world fall apart as she scrambles to hold the scraps together. She keeps searching for an outlet in all the wrong places, suffering through the sting of realization that she’s screwed up all over again, and you can’t help but root for her to succeed again.
Arriving on the calendar just weeks after the embarrassment of her misguided muppet farce “The Happytime Murders,” McCarthy gives her best performance just in time. One could argue that her Oscar-nominated turn in “Bridesmaids” had an unparalleled vulgarity that bordered on iconic, and the intriguing crime-gone-wrong dramedy “Tammy” (which McCarthy and Falcone co-wrote) now looks like a dry run for the richer performance she gives here. The movie reaches the apex of its appeal in a closing monologue in which the forger celebrates her work before an unforgiving judge. Considering that she ultimately profited from telling the story of her exploits, it’s unclear if Israel’s penance was ever genuine. But McCarthy’s performance succeeds primarily because it leaves that tantalizing question open ended as the credits roll.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” premiered at the 2018 Telluride Film Festival. Fox Searchlight releases it theatrically on October 19.