Friday, October 26, 2018

Melissa McCarthy Asks 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

 Third time's the charm.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the third Melissa McCarthy film released this year. The previous two, Life of the Party and The Happytime Murders, were painfully unfunny comedies that relied too heavily on McCarthy's charm and comedic chops to save them. But in the true story Can You Ever Forgive Me?, McCarthy gets serious, and gives her best and most surprising performance in years. (Yes Melissa, you are forgiven for those previous missteps.)

Set in a 1992 New York City straight out of a Woody Allen film, with lovingly framed shots of the Brooklyn Bridge, snow that is never anything but white, and a classic jazz standards soundtrack, it presents an aesthetic vision of New York that is the stuff of fiction, despite it being based on a true story.

But that's because this is how Lee Israel (McCarthy) envisions her New York; her reality is far grimmer. Fired from a copy editing job for drinking--though really, for just being an asshole--she's desperate for money. Her agent (Jane Curtain, who should be in more movies), refuses to give her a $10k advance on her next book--a biography of vaudevillian Franny Brice--because she knows a book like that isn't worth even a $100 advance.

At one time, Israel had a successful career as a magazine writer and celebrity biographer, penning books about Estee Lauder and Tallulah Bankhead. Her biography of What's My Line? panelist Dorothy Kilgallen was even a New York Times bestseller. But times are changing, and Israel is getting left behind. She's no longer getting paid to do the only thing she knows how to do, her rent is overdue, and her cat is sick.

When opportunity literally falls into her lap, in the form of some typed missives stuffed into a Fanny Brice biography, signed by Brice herself, one can hardly blame her for what she does next: she stuffs the letters into her bag, tries to sell them, and when she's told they'd be more valuable if they had a little more oomph, she adds that oomph herself, and is quickly on a new career path: literary forger, composing letters as witty as the real thing. (She dubs herself a "better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.")

McCarthy's Israel is a definite misanthrope who freely admits she prefers the company of cats to people. She's a heavy drinker and demands respect from people while rarely affording it to others. But as played by McCarthy, you can't help but root for her as her forgeries increase, and her money troubles start to melt away. McCarthy is perfect casting because she's never afraid to look and act ugly, but she has that natural humor that helps the soul of Lee Israel shine through. (She actually was a pretty good Dorothy Parker.)

Ricard E. Grant is also hilarious and haunting as Lee's only friend, Jack Hock, an aging, self-proclaimed queen, who used to run in the same literary circles as Lee, until he drunkenly peed in a coat closet during a fancy soiree. His huge, hungry eyes are like a Keene painting with a hangover, and Lee, who is even poorer in friends than she is in money, allows him to latch on to her.

Director Marielle Heller clearly has a love for interesting faces. Every actor in Can You Ever Forgive Me? has a such a unique and real look, from Dolly Wells as Anna, a bookshop owner Lee develops a crush on, to Anna Deavere Smith as Lee's ex-girlfriend, to, of course, Ben Falcone, McCarthy's real life husband, who has a small role as an unscrupulous book dealer. There's not a generically pretty face in the entire movie, and I loved that, not just because it's refreshing to see, but because it helps this story of a master faker feel even more real.

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