The surprising pleasure of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” comes from watching two of the film industry’s best comic actors play off against each other in weird and wonderful ways. Melissa McCarthy plays a frumpy, prickly author who turns to literary forgery when her books stop selling. She forms a dubious partnership with Richard E. Grant, who plays a garrulous con man she recruits as her accomplice.
While it’s corrosively humorous, the film is essentially a fact-based drama with poignant psychological insights about notions like insecurity, isolation and honesty.
It also represents a potential career resurgence for McCarthy, transitioning her away from lowbrow comedies (“Life of the Party,” “The Happytime Murders”) to thoughtful, serious fare. She delivers her most credible, on-target performance to date.
McCarthy plays the late Lee Israel, a writer on the outer edge of New York’s literary scene. Her specialty was well researched biographies of bygone female celebrities. The books were popular in the 1970s and ’80s, but by the 1990s, the genre was out of fashion. Her search for employment was not helped by her drinking problem, chronic pessimism and neurosis. When she loses a copy-editing job for drinking at work — Lee’s not one for protocols — she makes a scene in front of the other employees and storms out brusquely.
Making a rare visit to a cocktail party at her literary agent’s lavish apartment, she sneaks doubles, watches the guests like animals in a zoo and feels galled by the groupies focused on the guest of honor, Tom Clancy. Lee, who doesn’t have nice things other than a single designer handbag, gets her revenge by tricking the coat checker into giving her another woman’s chic full-length jacket. When she hits the sidewalk with the trophy wrapped around her, McCarthy’s expression radiates pleasure, jealousy and hostility all around a damaged core of human vulnerability.
A similar sense of payback seems to drive her to her new, larcenous career. With a limited skill set and no way to pay her rent, Lee begins a career as a forger. Not only could she compose letters that mimicked the writing style of Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward, but she could find the right antique typewriters to imitate the look of the era and counterfeit their signatures.
The letters make her a few hundred dollars here and there, but with antique booksellers all over the city, it adds up. Able to pay the rent on her studio apartment and afford a vet for her old, sickly cat, Lee is unapologetic. She’s a writer. What’s the problem? At least, until there are blackmail problems and FBI problems.
Once the character gets her hooks into you, you’re with Lee through every flickering qualm, burst of confidence and disappointment. While Lee is not agreeable in the sense of moral integrity, she’s understandable, relatable, maybe even lovable in her own horrible way. It’s a difficult part that McCarthy humanizes with tenderness and tart, understated humor. There’s breathtaking craft and control in her performance, but not once do you sense the tools at work.
Grant (also starring this week in Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms”) plays Jack Hock, Lee’s charming new partner in crime, like a honey-roasted ham. A bit of a kleptomaniac, Jack brings a swishy sense of mischief to the enterprise and a rare sense of social connection to the unlikable, introverted woman. Which leads us to learn that Lee has had love in her life, but with little passion and even less emotional commitment, as we see through a meeting with an old flame and another involving a potential new romance, a bookseller whom Lee has repeatedly fleeced.
Directed by Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and adapted from Israel’s memoir by Nicole Holofcener (“Lovely and Amazing”) and Jeff Whitty (a Tony-winning playwright making his Hollywood debut), the film is both melancholy and happy-go-lucky, the right combination of feelings for a New York story. The city is a character of its own, with impressively observant reference points. The film’s key barroom scenes were shot in Israel’s own hangout, and the set of her apartment looks a lot like the one that photos of her show. Everything feels lived in.
But it’s McCarthy’s quiet character study of the secretive fraud that gives the movie its real depth. It’s a fine irony that a film on the addictive pull of literature is built around a character who couldn’t be more of a closed book. Tackling this kind of smart, artistically ambitious role thrills viewers and wins attention from prestigious awards committees. It certainly made me sit up and take notice.
With all due respect to McCarthy’s talent as an actress and her force of personality, for the first time I thought, “Now, this is a movie star.”
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
★★★★ out of 4 stars
Rating: R for language, including some sexual references, and brief drug use.
Theaters: Edina, Oakdale.