'Can You Ever Forgive Me?': Yes, thanks to Melissa McCarthy's stellar biopic performance

It takes some people longer than others to find out what they’re really good at in life.

It took writer Lee Israel some 50 years to discover her true metier. But once she hit on it, nobody was more adept at her specialty — somewhere between high art and low craft.

And nobody could play her more adeptly than Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” a wickedly good biopic that’s sure to generate an Oscar nomination for its star.

Ms. Israel made a moderately successful living in the 1960s and ’70s profiling Katharine Hepburn in Esquire and penning well-received biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen. She used to be somebody.

'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'



  • Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin.
  • Rating: R for pervasive language and brief drug use.

But by the late 1980s, when we meet her at the film’s outset, she’s down and out in her filthy Upper West Side apartment. The rent is overdue. Her beloved cat is sick, and the vet won’t examine it until she pays her past balance. She’s drinking heavily. No publisher wants the Fanny Brice biography she’s working on. Her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) can’t, or won’t, get her any other work.

Why? Because Lee is nasty, bitter, disagreeable in the extreme. She shows up at the literary agent’s party in maximum hostile mode, insulting everybody, stealing a coat on her way out. Marjorie tells her to do one of two things: “Become a nicer person, or make a name for yourself.”

Fat chance of the former. As for the latter…

One day at the library in 1991, two Fanny Brice letters fall out of a book she’s perusing. She smuggles them out, types a faux postscript on one and sells it. Good fake letters must have a real taste of the writer’s personality, she discovers. There are plenty of dealers with plenty of customers in the elite world of literary collectors, willing to pay cash and ask no questions about origin.

Lee’s favorite literary figures are caustic/acerbics, like herself: Dorothy Parker (from whom the title derives), Noel Coward, Louise Brooks, Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman. She studies their letters, buys the various old typewriters they used and starts cranking out counterfeits, enlisting her clueless but charming old alcoholic pal Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) in the operation.

“Who’s Fanny Brice?” he asks.

“Are you sure you’re a fag?” she replies.

But the fake Coward letters are too explicit about his homosexuality. Discovery is inevitable, and when it comes — well, she better call Saul on her own peculiar road to Damascus.

Director Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) — who’s also helming Tom Hanks’ Mister Rogers film, shot in Pittsburgh — is working here with a screenplay full of F-words, from first line to last, adapted from Ms. Israel’s 2008 confessional memoir by Nicole Holofcener. They are less concerned with Ms. Israel’s scheme itself than with the psychology and loneliness underlying it.

Dumpy-frumpy Melissa McCarthy, the “SNL” star and “Bridesmaids” Oscar nominee, is simply terrific. Her performance is a tough but tender study in the contradictions of creative insecurity, perfectly complemented by Mr. Grant (“Gosford Park” 2001). Their sweetly developed relationship/partnership between two gay, ne’er-do-well friends is a delightful manifestation of rapport, effortlessly entertaining, their mutually caustic wit and chemistry anchoring the story.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” with its fine jazzy score and gritty Manhattan photography, celebrates the kind of fanciful, true-life eccentric con artist that New York (and America) rarely seem to produce in the stodgy 21st century: Lee Israel (1939-2014) and her Art of the Steal.

For such a melancholy, downbeat story, this quirky black tragicomedy got a helluva lot of applause at the preview.

Check it out.

Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris: parispg48@aol.com.

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