A good film with Melissa McCarthy in it is a rare thing. Even rarer is a good film with a good Melissa McCarthy performance. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a very, very good film, and McCarthy’s performance as writer Lee Israel is outstanding.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the true story of Lee Israel, a biographer of minor celebrities like Estée Lauder and Fanny Brice who finds herself struggling when a combination of poor choices of subject and her own rather abrasive personality dissuade her agent from wanting to work with her much longer. During library research, she stumbles over a letter written by Brice, which leads her to start forging letters from writers like Noël Coward or Dorothy Parker; during an afternoon drinking in a Manhattan bar, she renews her acquaintance with Jack, a drug dealer played with a pleasing degree of slumming elegance by Richard E. Grant.
While the film itself is, occasionally, a little slow — the first half takes a while really to get into gear, spending a lot of time developing Israel’s character and, in the process, giving McCarthy the chance to flesh out the role with depth and detail. But as she starts to get deeper into her scam, and to rely more on Jack to help her both with it and with aspects of her personal life, the film picks up the pace and develops into something that, while not quite having the vim of a classic caper, certainly displays some of the traits of one.
The script, by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, gives both McCarthy and Grant the chance to riff off each other a little, and Marielle Heller’s direction brings out the richness of their relationship. The film hinges, then, on the interplay between the two, and while Grant can be relied upon to deliver an engaging performance, McCarthy’s track record is entirely more spoggly.
A 2012 nomination for the best supporting actress Oscar for her turn in Bridesmaids led her to pick up leading roles in ever more execrable comedies; Spy was dreadful, while The Happytime Murders was worse — McCarthy can add spice to a comedy, but she simply can’t carry one alone. And even when she’s part of an sensible, she’s quite capable of risking ruining a film; Ghostbusters is, of course, the prime exhibit for that charge. But Can I Ever Forgive You? is the kind of role she really should be playing — it’s not a comedy, by any stretch, but there is wit in the lines McCarthy is given to deliver, and she finds complexity and depth in the character of Lee Israel.
I never imagined I’d seriously consider Melissa McCarthy a realistic contender for an acting Oscar. But on the strength of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, I might be ready to forgive her.