Christmas has come early for fans of Melissa McCarthy. Just when we'd girded ourselves for a post-Bridesmaids/The Heat/Spy tailspin into Eddie Murphy-level ignominy, (The Happytime Murders, anyone?), the actress has defiantly, triumphantly bounced back. With her latest performance, she's not merely redeemed; she's reinvented. And Melissa McCarthy 2.0 is cause for serious celebration.
She gets an assist from a preposterously talented team. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is the second feature from director Marielle Heller, who rocketed to prominence with 2015's The Diary of a Teenage Girl. The screenplay is the work of Tony Award-winning playwright Jeff Whitty and Nicole Holofcener, a writer-director of distinction with titles such as Please Give and Enough Said on her CV. It's that rarest of cinematic animals, a movie about a writer brimming with wisdom about the writing life.
McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a onetime best-selling biographer who, by 1991, had fallen out of favor with New York publishers due to shifting tastes and impatience with her uncouth demeanor. The movie is adapted from her 2008 confessional and recreates in loving detail the Manhattan of the period, from its rent-controlled walk-ups and seedy watering holes to its abundant, flourishing bookstores. In an early scene, Israel's exasperated agent (Jane Curtin) informs her that her proposal for a Fanny Brice bio is every bit as dead as its subject.
An acerbic alcoholic who's spent a lifetime burning bridges, Israel doesn't have much of a support system. There's her old cat, Jersey, which is sick. And there's a colorful gay hustler named Jack Hock. He's sick, too, with HIV, but, as embodied by an exuberant Richard E. Grant, is always up for a party or adventure just the same.
The author's aha moment comes when, with her rent overdue, she's forced to sell a note written to her by Katharine Hepburn following a 1967 magazine interview. Easy cash in hand, Israel realizes she may have stumbled upon the way to monetize a career's worth of accumulated esoterica concerning literary legends she's studied and documented. Faster than you can say Clifford Irving, she's knocking out reams of convincing faux correspondence by the likes of Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman and, dearest to her heart, Dorothy Parker.
McCarthy is marvelous as this amoral sourpuss, and it's a hoot and a half to look on as she reenacts the creation of her forgeries. In some cases, for example, Israel would have blank copies of a celebrity's letterhead made and then hunt down a typewriter with a font matching that used in their archived or published letters. Other times, she found her oven came in handy as a means of giving her fabrications the suggestion of age.
In every case, though, what kept the dealers and collectors buying was her gift for mimicking literary voices while sprinkling in biographical tidbits picked up over decades of doing research.
McCarthy's canny, nuanced portrayal conveys her subject's vinegary edge as palpably as her joy in finally finding her true literary calling — if only for a limited time and at a significant personal and professional cost. Though her and Grant's performances are first-rate, however, Heller's masterful shaping of the tale and the subtle, insightful script are the real stories here. Movies this smartly and artfully made are increasingly rare in our spandexed, franchised age. This is the sort of screen magic that can't be faked. Miss it and, mark my words, you'll never forgive yourself.