Movies 25 October 2018 | 17:36

‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ shows Melissa McCarthy like you’ve never seen her before

25 October 2018 17:36

If you think you know Melissa McCarthy, think again. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a game changer for the actor who’s famous for her comedic performances. By casting her as the writer and literary forger Lee Israel, director Marielle Heller has given McCarthy the meaty, dramatic role she’s long been waiting for.

Heller’s latest film is an adaptation of Israel’s memoir of the same name – the screenplay for which has been written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty – in which she detailed the circumstances surrounding her now infamous epistolary forgeries of the early 1990s. Down on her luck and all out of cash, Israel – who had written biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead, game show host Dorothy Kilgallen, and cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder – serendipitously discovered that she also had a surprising flair for fiction. A combination of diligent research and wanton impersonation soon has her penning an impressive cache of long-lost letters from the likes of Fanny Brice (the comedienne whose biography Israel is working on), Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker, which she then sells to the highest bidder.

Despite expectations, this isn’t a comedy crime caper. Israel doesn’t have a master plan, she’s just trying to keep her head above water: pay her rent, and the vet’s bills for her beloved old, sick cat, while also keeping herself in large quantities of whiskey. Thankfully, Heller doesn’t try to turn either the story or her anti-heroine into something they’re not. Israel is curmudgeonly, rude and confrontational. She’s all but impossible to get on with. She hasn’t had a relationship in years – though her ex, Elaine, does preoccupy her thoughts – and the only human she seems able to have any kind of meaningful interaction with is her drinking buddy-turned-partner-in-crime, Jack Hock (the brilliant Richard E. Grant), an ageing bon viveur who’s ‘fucked his way’ through the city living on his charm, wits and dodgy drug deals.

Their friendship isn’t without its flaws; they’re both screwed up in their own way, and much of what they’re doing is propping the other up with strong liquor. But there’s also a real tenderness between them – the chemistry between McCarthy and Grant some of the best I’ve seen on screen in a while – and Can You Ever Forgive Me? is just as much a film about their thorny relationship as it is the story of Israel’s nefarious criminal activity.

Whether it’s the brown and beige tones of the era, or the spectre of AIDS that lies in wait for Jack – ‘All my friends are dead,’ he jokes at one point – the film is a diligently realised, completely convincing period piece. Heller brings the same verisimilitude to the screen as in her previous feature, the 1970s San Francisco-set The Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015). Despite this specificity though, Israel is very much a heroine for today: a nasty, difficult woman who refuses to abide by the rules. Her agent is exasperated that her client won’t clean her act up and play the game. She encourages Israel to not only be more likeable, but also to give more of herself, both to her public, and to her work.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is not a straightforward attack on these demands though, Heller expertly shows that Israel’s situation was a lot more complicated. She steadfastly refused to expose herself, but by the time her crimes are found out, she’s realised that these forged letters, within which she allowed herself free reign, have been her very best work. McCarthy masterfully captures all the knotty aspects of the brusque but brittle woman she plays, bringing genuine pathos to the role.