It is a time honoured tradition for actors primarily known for comedic roles to go serious. From Jim Carrey to Richard Pryor to Adam Sandler and many more, the practice is often shorthand for ‘now this person is a legitimate actor’. An unfair dismissal, of course, but one that still holds an immense amount of power in an industry driven by easily defined tropes. The mere suggestion of someone like Steve Carrell donning a prosthetic nose to play a real-life murderer is enough to spark Oscar conversations. So, how does that narrative fit in when said comedic performer going serious has already been Oscar-nominated for a big, bold comedy part?
Melissa McCarthy is one of the few actresses working in Hollywood today who can, for the most part, open a film to box office success based on her name alone. She has crafted a striking comedic personality — warm, brash and fearless — that’s led to critical and commercial clout that’s become increasingly rare in franchise era Hollywood. While much of her persona seems defined by the broader works she makes with her husband Ben Falcone, it’s her collaborations with Paul Feig that have displayed her tremendous range and appeal. This year, however, has been a lesser one in terms of her success so far. Life of the Party made back its money but proved underwhelming to many, and the less said about The Happytime Murders, the better. However, McCarthy has this ace up her sleeve.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the true story of Lee Israel, a biographer who wrote respectable histories of figures like Katharine Hepburn and Estee Lauder. After her style goes out of fashion in an age of tawdry tell-alls, she finds herself in dire straights and begins to forge celebrity correspondences for cash. Along with her fellow down-and-out Jack (Richard E. Grant), the pair engage in literary fraud and eventually theft.
Describing this film, directed by Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), as a new direction for McCarthy feels inaccurate because in many ways it’s a classic Melissa McCarthy role: A brash wit on the outskirts of society who always leaves an impression, if not necessarily a positive one. Lee Israel is repeatedly described by those she knows as an asshole and it’s an accurate descriptor, but she’s also a wickedly funny one. Indeed, Can You Ever forgive Me? provides more authentic laugh-out-loud moments than some of McCarthy’s pure comedies. Israel is a writer, one who prides herself on her ability to create fully objective and personality-free narratives, but she’s also always ready with a bitter quip for every occasion. She can be charming but she mostly chooses not to bother. It’s a part that McCarthy adds just enough warmth to but she has no interest in softening Israel’s bitterness. She seldom smiles and moves through New York City of 1991 with a sense of sluggish defeat. Lee Israel would probably be a very tough woman to spend a whole movie with if McCarthy did not make her desperation seem so organic. It’s a performance so thoroughly natural that you can’t help but feel let down when the movie cops out slightly in her climactic moment with a cliched monologue. Her chemistry with Richard E. Grant, who’s having a ball as a semi-homeless drug dealer of impeccable Noel Coward-esque charm, creates a charismatic double act bound by their mutual distaste for people. Both McCarthy and Grant deserve all the acclaim that will come their way in the following months.
This is a film first and foremost about how much it sucks to be a starving artist. Israel had decent success as a biography writer but the market has no interest in her style or subjects anymore. Her agent (Jane Curtin) bluntly tells her that nobody cares about her latest subject, Fanny Brice, and she is dismissed or derided by most of the literary establishment, including one bookshop worker who then giddily changes tune when Israel impersonates Nora Ephron on the phone. At a party populated by schmoozing book people, Tom Clancy drinks sherry and brags about how he never gets writer’s block because that’s merely an excuse for lazy authors, and Israel’s barely veiled hatred speaks volumes to the reality of their industry: Of course the mediocre white dude is doing okay. Meanwhile, Israel is behind on rent and has gotten so used to living in her own filth that she stops noticing it until people visit.
Israel’s descent into crime is gradual, starting when she pawns off a genuine Katharine Hepburn letter to pay her bills, then continuing when she finds a Fanny Brice letter at the library but its mundane contents don’t excite the buyer. A few embellishments later and he changes his tune, so she goes about becoming the ultimate ghost-writer, armed with various typewriters and old paper as well as her own Dorothy Parker-esque caustic wit. What better way to deal with your artistic frustrations than taking on a new guise? The film’s subtle dig at the celebrity-obsessed literary world, one that so often prides itself on being anti-lowbrow, takes form through the ways booksellers and experts treat Israel’s ginned up forgeries. A casual letter from Fanny Brice means nothing: A letter from Fanny Brice with an addition about her grandson’s nose means something.
What surprised most about Can You Ever Forgive Me? is its quiet and radical queerness. The film’s marketing doesn’t seem to acknowledge that Lee Israel was gay, although Grant’s character’s sexuality is more flamboyantly obvious in the trailers. Heller and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty create a beautiful specificity to their relationship and lives. These are two people who are both gay, both in their 50s, and both disdainful of the world. They find mutual friendship on the fringes, drinking in the cheaper gay bars that aren’t so clean but still dressing up nicely when they have the money to attend a more upmarket location. Heller fills the scenes with lived-in details - the Act Up sticker in the window, the people they meet in bars, the way a kindly bookshop owner (Dolly Wells) takes a shine to Lee in coded language - that make this New York at the tail end of the AIDS era feel real in a way that goes beyond lip service.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a low-key but immensely inviting dramedy about the odd things desperate people do and the excitement of delivering a stealthy ‘fuck you’ to those who doubted you. Marielle Heller builds on the exciting potential of her debut and creates an earthy New York tale that takes on loneliness, poverty, literary elitism and the love between a woman and her cat. It also has a killer dig at Tom Clancy.
Can You Ever forgive Me? will be released in American cinemas on October 19th.
Header Image Source: Courtesy of TIFF