The early 1990s New York of Marielle Heller’s “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” isn’t so long ago but it already feels staggeringly distant. It’s a New York of publishing industry cocktail parties, of book stores, lots of them, and of scheming, foul-mouthed eccentrics.
Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) and her partner-in-crime Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) are two such dyed-in-Zabar’s characters. Life has been kind to neither of them. Israel’s latest book, a biography of Estee Lauder, lies stacked on the 75 percent-off table. When she runs into her old friend at a bar (it’s still daylight outside but both are well on their way), Lee asks Jack, a former actor, what he’s been doing with his life. “This and that,” Jack says brightly. And then with a chagrined grimace: “Mostly that.”
Israel has penned well-received biographies on Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen, but interest in her books has dried up and now her agent (Jane Curtin, brilliant) won’t return her calls. A 51-year-old gay woman who lives with her cat in a small apartment on the Upper West Side, Israel is struck by writer’s block or, possibly, is just drinking too much. Her sad predicament infuriates her, and caustic wit fires out of her indiscriminately. Nothing arouses her fury like Tom Clancy; she bitterly curses his millions while being behind her rent.
With nowhere left to turn, Israel begins forging celebrity letters from the likes of Franny Brice, Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker and Louise Brooks. Sometimes adding to real letters, sometimes faking the stationery altogether, she’s able to convincingly mimic their voices. They fetch her a decent paycheck from book stores and collectors. She’s good at it, too. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” says Israel with genuine pride.
The story is a real one, first recounted in Israel’s gleefully unrepentant 2008 memoir of the same title. Heller’s film, adapted by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, has brought to the screen all the strange ironies of Israel’s famous fraud. (Her forgeries eventually attracted the attention of the FBI and she was sentenced to six months house arrest. Israel died in 2014 at 75.)
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has justly won praise as one of McCarthy’s best and most dramatic performances. As Israel, she’s a gloriously embittered, hard-drinking curmudgeon incapable of holding her tongue — a distinctly New York creature if ever there was one. And her fear of slipping away is painfully real.
That McCarthy is utterly at home in a more dramatic part comes as little surprise. She was the best thing in 2014’s misjudged “St. Vincent” and even her broadest of comedic performances tremble with tenderness and soul. She’s simply one of the best actors working today, and it didn’t take a drama to see that.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” sings best — or rather, grumbles spectacularly — when McCarthy and Grant are together. They are kindred misfits and malcontents happy for each other’s company. It’s been more than three decades since “Withnail and I,” and Grant remains the best drinking buddy in movies. As the even-more-down-on-his-luck Hock, Grant is a paragon of debauched decadence, tragic and magnificent at once. His regal bearing crackles with a sly wickedness. “Do not underestimate sparking blues eyes and a little bit of street smarts,” he tells Israel in mid-hustle.
That Heller, whose debut was the coming-of-age drama “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” has affection for these two is obvious. And just as in her San Francisco 1976-set debut, she leaves the moralizing to the viewer. That film brilliantly captured and let soar the voice of 15-year-old aspiring cartoonist. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is about a more frustrated female artist who finds self-expression illegally but genuinely. “I still consider the letters,” Israel wrote in her memoir, “to be my best work.”
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a Fox Searchlight release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for language including some sexual references and brief drug use. Running time: 107 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.