Film & Television

Melissa McCarthy Isn’t Funny in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ — She’s Marvelous

Melissa McCarthy has become one of Hollywood’s most recognizable stars. When you think of her, you might remember goofy chef Sookie St. James from Gilmore Girls. Or Sandra Bullock’s chubby sidekick in The Heat. Half of the dieting duo Mike and Molly (which earned her the first of two Emmys). Sean Spicer’s uncanny doppelganger on SNL (for which she earned her second Emmy). Or crass (and gastrointestinally challenged) Megan from Bridesmaids, a role that earned her an Oscar nomination.

In 2013, I was one of the small minority of critics who didn’t gush about Bridesmaids. Despite a terrific cast, I found all the scatological humor distasteful (not to mention disgusting). I was equally offended by mainstream reviewers who wrote headlines like, “It’s official. Women are funny too.” To me, it seemed as though they were force-fitting a popular film style that had been successful with male actors onto a group of females. It was gross-you-out comedy, and McCarthy’s character was the grossest.

With so many comedic roles under her belt, including last summer’s ill-advised The Happytime Murders, which took puppet sex to new and disturbing heights, it’s refreshing to see McCarthy take on a dramatic role in Can You Ever Forgive Me? In fact, her author-turned-forger Lee Israel is utterly unpleasant, a resentful misanthrope who drinks heavily and hates everybody except her cat (who is given such free reign in her apartment that an exterminator refuses to do his job there until she can get rid of the smell).

In recent years, we’ve seen a number of anti-heroes (Don Draper, Anthony Soprano), but it’s rare to have an anti-heroine. Lee is an unlikely heroine, to say the very least. And, as Lee, McCarthy is simply marvelous.

Director Marielle Heller (working with a script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty) wasn’t concerned about casting a comedienne. “I think good comedians are very in touch with the darkness of humanity and human pain — at least the comedians I love,” she says, adding, “I should know. I’m married to one. But I think Melissa is a very smart comedian, and she’s somebody who’s very in touch with what is true about human nature. And she’s interested in human behavior. So, there was some risk that we knew we were taking because we knew that the public isn’t used to seeing her in this type of role. The risk wasn’t about whether she could do it. She clearly has the chops. She’s an incredible actor, and I’m so excited for people to see her in this role. The risk really was, how will people take it when she’s not giving them what they’re used to seeing from her — when she’s not playing her greatest hits, so to speak?”

To date the film, which is in limited release, has grossed only $3.6 million. But it has received uniformly rave reviews for McCarthy and her costar, British actor Richard E. Grant. Many critics are predicting Oscar nominations for both of them.

Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on the memoir of the real-life Israel, who passed away in 2014. A successful biographer in the 1970s and ‘80s, she fell out of favor, and by 1991, when the film takes place, she is broke and desperate. She stalks her less-than-enthusiastic agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) and tries to sell old books to scrape up enough money for several months of past-due rent. Researching her next project, a biography of Fanny Brice, which her agent insists no one will read, she stumbles across a letter from that famous “funny girl.” She’s able to sell it, and learns that there’s a thriving market for literary letters, especially those that showcase an author’s personal wit. She invests in some old typewriters, practices signatures, and she’s in business.

Lee’s accidental accomplice is a dapper homosexual named Jack Hock (Israel is gay as well, but that aspect of her life isn’t central to the plot). Jack, who becomes Lee’s drinking buddy first, presents himself as a “man about town,” although Lee soon figures out that he’s homeless. Together, they make thousands of dollars with Lee’s little masterpieces. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she boasts. All is well until some collectors start questioning the authenticity of the letters. The FBI gets involved, and Lee faces a potential prison sentence.

“I’m not sorry,” she tells the judge, departing from the script her lawyer wants her to read. “In many ways this has been the best time of my life.” Indeed, the excitement of breaking the law and the elation of getting away with it has added color to Lee’s otherwise drab existence.

She also believes that the letters represent some of her best work.

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