When a beloved comic actor makes their first attempt at a dramatic role—a turn as inevitable as the sunrise—they usually opt for a very specific type of character: one who is socially repressed but, over the course of the film, breaks out and learns to embrace life. It’s a soft landing spot for comedians in that it uses the audience’s expectation of their buffoonery to create tension. It’s a shortcut, essentially, and the kind Melissa McCarthy thoroughly avoids in her first attempt at drama, the terrific Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Instead of relying on her comedic persona, she approaches the complicated role of Lee Israel with the same commitment and humbleness that has defined her great comic work in films such as Bridesmaids and Spy. Lee is a successful writer of celebrity biographies, who is struggling to make ends meet. We’re told that, despite her success, no one wants to work with her. After we see her insult a book seller and ambush her agent, who won’t return her calls, at a party, we understand why. McCarthy is a force of anger in these scenes, but she never once goes for the cheap laugh. After just a few minutes of screen time, you’ll stop expecting her to.
Lee’s fortune changes when she discovers an unpublished letter of vaudeville star Fanny Brice tucked into the cover of an old book. Its sale nets her some much-needed cash, so she decides to forge a Noel Coward letter from scratch. Delighted by the compliment that it is perceived as authentic, she forges ahead, taking on more famous and inimitable voices. She writes letters from Dorothy Parker, Lillian Hellman, Katherine Hepburn, and Judy Holliday. Each letter constitutes its own writing challenge, and a criminal enterprise that brings some excitement to her otherwise hermit-like lifestyle.
Still, under the steady hand of director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), neither the film nor McCarthy’s performance succumbs to the temptation of joy. Even when things are going well for Lee, the film’s bluesy tone portends the inevitable downfall. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is set in a dreary, cold mid-’90s New York that feels more like the city’s crime-ridden ’70s. It takes place in seedy bars, dingy basement bookstores, and dirty apartments. Even when Lee makes a boisterous friend, a former colleague (Richard E. Grant) whose dedicated efforts to making irresponsibility attractive are crumbling with his advancing age, their drunken revelries are staged as fantasy, with jazzy saxophones on the soundtrack and a little extra pink in their cheeks. In this world of booze and books, a little fiction goes a long way.
It’s a thoughtful and probing film, even if, in the final third, Can You Ever Forgive Me? does succumb to a few Hollywood contrivances. Lee’s downfall and her redemption have an air of unearned inevitability. Lee’s letters eventually draw suspicion, and the FBI begins to investigate her. The walls close in. There is a well delivered courtroom monologue by McCarthy that feels designed for her Oscar clip. There is even a sick cat, Lee’s pet, used to humanize her. These elements feel too neat for a film characterized by its commitment to unvarnished truths, but to be honest, none of it bothered me much. Much like its protagonist, the film’s occasional missteps in its attempts at survival are, well, easy enough to forgive.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema and Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema.