Full of “caustic wit”, this is a McCarthy comedy I can get behind.
Lee Israel is a struggling writer living in New York, with her rent three months overdo, her cat being sick, and her publisher wanting nothing to do with her, she turns to a life of fraud to make ends meet.
It is great to see actors branch out from their typecast roles; you get a renewed sense of their skills and talents which have remained buried under the studio system. Angelina Jolie in The Changeling, or Tom Cruise in Collateral, or Robin Williams in One Hour Photo. We get to enjoy the actor, not the celebrity, we get to see a character and not a face.
It is safe to say that “Melissa McCarthy movies” are not made for me; I am not the target audience, and I have no desire to watch any of them. Then the trailer for Can You Ever Forgive Me? emerged, and we see a different Melissa McCarthy than we are used to; a bitter, fed up, dishevelled and real woman. It was intriguing!
As a writer too, there is a draw to a film about writers. Set in the early 1990s, we see the true story of Lee Israel, a writer of biographies and non-fiction, barely scraping by as her life tailspins out of control. Angry and lashing out at everyone, she’s tired that no one will give her a chance yet doesn’t give anyone the incentive to want to. She steals, she drinks, she is a rotten person, who takes perverse glee at gaining the upper hand on someone.
Enter a friend, or as close as one could be to her, Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock, an older man with an unhealthy grasp on life, and a terrible influence on Lee. The two of them have tremendous chemistry! Both jokers, both seeking solace in each others company yet also wanting retribution on the hard life they have been given (or perhaps, gave themselves). Honestly, the writing between these two, the vocal jabs, thrusts and parries they deliver to each other, is worthy of admission alone. It is great to see McCarthy in such a role, and to see Grant in a more down-to-earth performance.
Of course, the film centres around Lee’s prolific skill at fraudulent identity theft. Taking letters from famous writers and celebrities, she would modify them, making them full of juicy gossip, then selling them to collectors at ridiculous prices. She and Jack would make for a double team in this endeavour.
It being a true story, there’s only one way for it to really pan out for Lee and Jack, but the journey that McCarthy goes on with the character is surprisingly sombre. Sure, the film has plenty of laughs (a lot of them dry, blunt comedy) but we get a very compelling piece of drama from it too. We see Lee frequently vulnerable; we see her alone, due to her stand-offish nature, yet also pining for companionship. We see her snide, rude behaviour born from difficult past events, melt in the face of others sharing equally tough stories. There is a unique and human story here, well executed from everyone involved. The director, Marielle Heller, is a debut actress-turn-director, and her work is clearly going places.
Don’t go in expecting a generic McCarthy comedy; this is not that! It is a small, charming, and real comedy about the struggles of modern life with a dash of thriller.