Melissa McCarthy has spent the past few years of her movie career urging audiences to like her, to laugh along with her willing, do-anything antics, sometimes showing the sad side to a sweet character. In Can You Ever Forgive Me, she flips the script, leading with the caustic, brusque and deceitful and keeping the sensitive buried deep. It’s a somewhat slow, but engaging true story about a woman running out of options who finds a unique yet dishonest and illegal way to develop her craft.
The film follows McCarthy’s Lee Israel, an unpopular writer struggling to make ends meet, who has pushed away everyone she’s ever cared about. When her pragmatic editor (a delightful and all-too-brief Jane Curtin) pushes her to find another way to make money, Lee begins forging letters from famous writers and selling them off. With the help of the flamboyant Jack (Richard E. Grant), a sad man in the body of a gregarious lush, they begin to hustle the book scene. In the midst of this, Lee begins to fall for the manager of a local bookstore (Dolly Wells).
The story is fairly straightforward, and the direction (from Marielle Heller) is relatively flat, but McCarthy really elevates everything. Her portrayal of the real-life reclusive is soft and restrained, free of the over-the-top style she usually employs. She’s a harsh character but one that is full of wit, and watching the implosion her life in slow motion is fascinating. McCarthy has always brought more depth to her characters than exist on the page, but she really excels here. Grant is also wonderful in the showier role. Their chemistry works so well together even as their relationship veers into unexpected areas.
Ultimately, the movie is a bit tepid and safe. The story unfolds rather typically, as these real-life tales tend to do, but McCarthy makes the entire thing so much more engaging and enjoyable.
My Grade – B-