It’s fair to say that Melissa McCarthy wasn’t at her best in 2018. Sweary puppet comedy The Happytime Murders was a rare example of a film that was hated by both critics and audiences – it got the lowest CinemaScore of McCarthy’s career – and Life of the Party would have almost certainly been similarly reviled if anyone had bothered to see it.
McCarthy, however, is starting 2019 by making the move into the world of dramatic roles with Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in which she plays real-life writer Lee Israel. Adapted from the late Israel’s 2008 memoir of the same name, the film follows her decision to enter the world of forged literary letters when her writing career hit the skids. Alongside Richard E. Grant as her perma-sozzled accomplice Jack, McCarthy is able to deliver the best performance of her career to date.
The film opens in an environment familiar to any writer – the 3.30am collision with the productivity wall – and delves immediately into a scuzzy 1990s milieu. We see McCarthy flicking dead flies off the pillow in her pokey apartment before nicking half-used toilet rolls from a party hosted by her bougie literary agent. McCarthy’s Israel describes herself as “a 51-year-old woman who likes cats better than people” and the role allows her to strip all of the screeching anarchy out of her broad comedy shtick, leaving only the best bits – acerbic wit and spiky line delivery.
Her relationship with Richard E. Grant’s wheeler-dealer gives the film its considerable heart. They both feel as if their talents have been squandered by the rest of the world and have funnelled those talents into unsavoury pursuits – she’s a forger, he deals cocaine. Their relationship plays out early on as if they’re in a romcom, albeit an entirely platonic one in which both parties are gay, and there’s real joy to be found in watching the pair hang out. It helps that Grant is having the time of his life, channelling the ghost of Withnail into a character so flamboyant and performative that he even manages to smoke in a flouncy way, blowing vapour in a wide arc even when he thinks nobody is watching.
The director at the helm here is Marielle Heller, who made The Diary of a Teenage Girl in 2015, and her voice comes through clearly in a movie that feels breezier and more freewheeling than a standard awards season biopic. This lightweight tone sometimes leaves it feeling a little lacking – a tender subplot between Israel and Dolly Wells’s bookshop owner is undercooked – but the time spent in the presence of McCarthy and Grant is able to paper over any number of storytelling shortcuts.
Indeed, Can You Ever Forgive Me? shies away from ever questioning its central character, who maintained until she died that she was proud of her forgeries. The film is dedicated to Israel herself, but does very little to examine the impact her crimes had on the victims who spent hundreds of dollars on her falsified letters, many of which remained in circulation long after Israel’s crimes were uncovered. Like American Animals last year, this film leans heavily on the perspective of the criminals and seems ultimately forgiving, characterising Israel as a somewhat pitiable figure.
It might be a little soft on its protagonist, but Can You Ever Forgive Me? is such a likeable movie that it’s difficult not to fall under its spell. Ultimately, it feels destined to be remembered as one of the first real vehicles for Melissa McCarthy as a dramatic actor with proper heft. Certainly she’s terrific here and deserves all of the awards attention that has been lavished her way. It’s a role that understands her more than anything she has done before, taking her comic chops seriously, and turning them into something that’s real rather than a caricature.
Dir: Marielle Heller
Scr: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty
Prd: Anne Carey, Amy Nauiokas, David Yarnell
DOP: Brandon Trost
Music: Nate Heller
Run time: 106 mins
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is out in UK cinemas from 1st February.