Having broken through as a comic actress with hilarious turns in hits such as Bridesmaids and Spy, Melissa McCarthy turns more serious for the excellently scuzzy forgery thriller Can You Ever Forgive Me?
She plays the real-life character of Lee Israel, once a moderately successful literary biographer who now can’t get a new publishing deal (her steely editor is played smartly by Jane Curtin) and instead, amid the celebrity-obsessed, AIDs-haunted world of 90s New York, turns to drink, misery, and her cat.
Her only friend becomes the equally wayward Jack, a dandyish but desperate homosexual played by Richard E Grant on fine, florid, bibulous form, who, pulling up a stool next to Lee at a dive bar, encourages this lonely, lesbian writer with a bad haircut in both her drinking and, especially, in her new venture as a forger of intimate letters from famous figures, such as Dorothy Parker, Noel Coward and Katherine Hepburn.
After finding – and pinching – a genuine original letter from Funny Girl Fanny Brice, Lee slowly discovers there’s quite a market for these revealing epistles, and finds willing buyers in various downtown second-hand bookshops – these dusty, maze-like spaces dot lower Manhattan of the period, giving the movie a similarly musty, dog-eared feel.
She buys an old typewriter and sets to work revealing – ok, inventing – intimate details from the secretly-imagined lives of the greats. Suddenly she’s getting decent prices for her perceptively written impressions of famous dead people. How long can she really get away with it, though?
This is sometimes deliciously funny, often tense and always morally dubious, and McCarthy and Grant, both Oscar-nominated for their roles, play the heady, odd-couple cocktail to its full potency. They make a great, unlikely and often unlikeable double-act, but you root for them all the same, these denizens of Manhattan’s cultural underbelly.
What’s particularly pleasing is watching McCarthy’s Israel re-discover her self-worth as a writer even as she adopts the voice of another one, realising that, at least for the length of a caustically witty letter, she might even be a better Dorothy Parker than Parker herself.
While Grant is delicious and touching as Jack’s tragedy comes to the fore, McCarthy delivers a very intelligent performance, delicate and bruised, like the apple at the bottom of the bowl. Her Lee Israel is defiant in her eccentricity and McCarthy strikes perversely inspiring chords in the way she plays it.
It’s a strange mix this film, part crime tale, part buddy caper comedy, part sophisticated love story, part betrayal. Ultimately, Can You Ever Forgive Me? questions the value of authorship, of literary artefacts and our own gullibility when it comes to fame, as well as our need for flattery and validation.
It’s also, deep down, about being true to yourself and your own voice. So do watch this unusually brooding and wistful New York comedy – miss it, and I won’t ever forgive you.
To hear more about the film you can listen to the new episode of my London Film Podcast where I talk to Richard E Grant about his role in the film.