It’s not uncommon for up-and-coming writers to imitate the voices of influential authors in the process of creating their own style, but biographer Lee Israel took the process a step further by faking letters by literary legends for her own illicit profits. Portraying Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”, Melissa McCarthy captures the thrill of successful mimicry, although her screen performance is quite unlike anything she’s done before.
Like many great comic creations, McCarthy’s earlier roles have often contained a core of barely-concealed rage, allowing her to blast through a world that barely knows how to handle her. Here, the character is subsumed with such misanthropy that she can barely make it to her local gay bar to knock back some scotch-and-sodas.
Other McCarthy films – particularly the ones she co-creates with her husband, actor-director Ben Falcone – often call for her character to weepily atone for her obstreperousness. (“Tammy,” “The Boss” and “Identity Thief” could also have been called “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” for those contrition scenes alone.) In this movie, the breakdown feels more earned and not as a repudiation for the actress playing women who dare to be as bold, brash and lacking an inside voice as her male comedy counterparts.
When we meet Lee Israel, she’s hard-up for cash, with previous books sitting on remainder tables and her agent (Jane Curtin) telling her that no one wants to read Lee’s proposed biography of Fanny Brice. But it’s in the Brice research that she discovers a personal letter from the vaudeville star, tucked into a biography. When she goes to sell it, the dealer tells her it’s less valuable than Lee’s apology note from Katharine Hepburn, which reflects more of the celebrity’s personality.
A light goes off above her head, and Lee starts buying old typewriters and forging fake notes from the likes of Noel Coward and Edna Ferber. (“I write a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” Lee boasts at one point.) The money starts rolling in, and she can pay her back rent and veterinarian bills. The authorities, eventually, start closing in, but “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is less about this literary caper and more about Lee Israel herself.
Her one friend in the world is a rascally gay coke dealer played by Richard E. Grant as a charming rogue who would set off most people’s trouble-alert at ten feet. He becomes her accomplice — despite not knowing any of the people whose identities Lee is faking — and he’s the one person to whom she can open up about her life and shortcomings. At one point, she admits to breaking up with an ex because “she wanted me to listen to her talk about her feelings, and get closer to her friends, and s–t like that.”
The film is an impressive showcase for McCarthy, giving her a role that tests her dramatic chops without being humor-free, and that puts her in a precarious situation of her own making without ever turning maudlin about it. Director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (“The Land of Steady Habits”) and Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) never shy away from Lee’s bitterness while portraying how her inability to schmooze is hampering her career as a writer. Curtin, reminding us that she should be in everything, gets a great toughlove monologue in which she lays out why Lee isn’t making Tom Clancy money and what steps she would need to take to do so.
The script is populated with characters who make an impression, even in just a scene or two, and casting director Jennifer Euston (“Camping”) has populated the film with throngs of talented New York actors to play them, including Anna Deveare Smith, Stephen Spinella, and Michael Cyril Creighton. Grant has a blast with one of his most wastrel-ish characters since “Withnail and I,” and Dolly Wells is heartbreaking as a bookstore owner smitten with Lee.
The act of recreating the voice of others, albeit illegally, ultimately empowered Israel to write the well-received memoir on which this film was based. And the act of playing Lee Israel will, with any luck, empower more filmmakers to think of Melissa McCarthy as an actress whose gifts range beyond broad comedy.