'Can You Ever Forgive Me?': Film Review | Telluride 2018

Raunchy comic actress shifts gears rewardingly.

Melissa McCarthy stars in the bizarre true story of a down-on-her-luck writer who embarked on a startlingly successful second career as a literary forger.

As some pundit once observed, every comic secretly yearns to play Hamlet, which of course is an oversimplification. And yet funny men and women have often made the journey to dramatic roles, with mixed results. Melissa McCarthy is the latest to veer from her customary image, in a surprisingly rewarding dramedy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which had its world premiere in Telluride and will be released by Fox Searchlight this fall. McCarthy’s performance, which is paired with an equally rewarding turn by British actor Richard E. Grant, anchors this bizarre, compelling true story. After a couple of recent misfires, this picture will remind viewers of McCarthy’s undeniable talents.

Lee Israel (McCarthy) was a biographer and journalist with a few moderately successful books to her credit, but she fell victim to every writer’s nightmare as the assignments began to dry up. Her alcoholism and self-destructive personal behavior did not help. She managed to hang on to her seedy Manhattan apartment and her beloved cat, but as bills began to mount, she had to seek another source of income. She found a surprising new vocation as a literary forger, after a couple of authentic letters from celebrities drew money from bookshop owners and collectors. Her literary gifts enabled her to write witty and piquant letters in the style of authors like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward and celebrities like Marlene Dietrich. (An end note reports that she forged an astonishing total of 400 letters over the course of her second career.) Eventually the law caught up with her, but Israel wrote a well-received memoir on which this film is based. Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty adapted the book, and Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) directed smoothly.

The film faces some box-office challenges. McCarthy’s usual fan base will probably never have heard of writers like Parker, Coward or Edna Ferber. But well-deserved acclaim for the performances may encourage some of these viewers to take a chance on the pic, and they will discover another side of the comic icon’s talent. The movie allows McCarthy to take advantage of her gift for deadpan humor, but the actress also achieves some poignant moments that she has not often demonstrated. And she achieves impressive rapport with her co-stars. Grant has his best role in many years as Lee’s gay confidant and accomplice in selling the forged letters. (He proved to be an even more cunning salesman than Lee.)

There are also tender scenes with Lee’s ex-lover, beautifully played by Anna Deavere Smith, and with a lonely bookshop owner (Dolly Wells), who awakens Lee’s long-dormant romantic feelings. Jane Curtin as Lee’s impatient, crusty agent and Stephen Spinella as a gullible collector also contribute neat characterizations.

There is a problem with the pacing of the film. The drunken scenes with Grant become repetitive, and the director sometimes fails to vary the lugubrious tenor of scenes in Lee’s apartment and in neighborhood bars. Yet the startling facts of Lee Israel’s life do keep us engaged most of the time. In one of the amusing end titles, we are informed that Nora Ephron once issued an injunction to prevent Israel from imitating her on the phone in order to contact colleagues who were refusing her calls. And McCarthy’s startling and haunting performance always keeps us riveted.

Heller captures a vivid sense of place and time, and the music choices — favorites from another era, often performed in vibrant new recordings — provide delightful background. The highlight is Blossom Dearie’s rendition of Henry Mancini’s tune, "Charade," a perfect musical coda to this disarming film.

Production company: Archer Gray
Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith, Stephen Spinella, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky
Director: Marielle Heller
Screenwriters: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty, based on the book
Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Lee Israel
Producers: Anne Carey, Amy Nauiokas, David Yarnell
Executive producers: Jawal Nga, Pamela Hirsch, Bob Balaban
Director of photography: Brandon Trost
Production designer: Stephen Carter
Costume designer: Arjun Bhasin
Editor: Anne McCabe
Music: Nate Heller

Music supervisor: Howard Paar
Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Rated R, 106 minutes