Film & Television

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

Despite Lee’s personality flaws, we do root for her, which is a testament to McCarthy’s fine work. Lee isn’t very nice, but she’s an underdog fighting against a system that’s unfair in her own very creative way. Her friendship with Jack (who isn’t very nice either) is oddly symbiotic, and Grant’s performance, every bit as powerful as McCarthy’s, helps bring this oddest of odd couples to life. When they break up, thanks to a confluence of unfortunate events, the loss—for both of them—is great.

Lee is severely relationship-challenged. Her ex-lover Elaine (Anna Deavere Smith, in a cameo that’s much too brief) left because Lee couldn’t connect. A potential new partner, bookstore owner Anna (Dolly Wells) may or may not be interested, but wants Lee to read her short stories. McCarthy manages to fully inhabit all of Lee’s horrible attributes, while making her human as well. We don’t necessarily like her, certainly wouldn’t like her in real life, but we feel compassion toward her.

It took several years for Can You Ever Forgive Me? to make it to the screen. At one point, Julianne Moore was to play Lee, with Holofcener directing. When Moore dropped out, McCarthy, whose husband, Ben Falcone, had already been cast in a smaller role, was excited to come onboard.

“Lee is someone I found engaging,” she explains, “and I wanted to look at the heart of why she did troubling things.”

As far as the film is concerned, McCarthy has a lofty goal, “I hope people will think about seeing the invisible people who are around them all the time. Lee and Jack were just people no one looked at. No one passed by Lee and thought, ‘I wonder if she’s remarkable.’ They were just invisible. How many people do we pass each day that we don’t even look at? Especially today. I hope people look up and actually see people.”

In addition to the excellent character work with McCarthy and all her actors, Heller deftly re-creates the New York City of the early 1990s. It was still possible to live in a crappy apartment on the Upper West Side then (they’ve pretty much disappeared now, along with Manhattan’s middle class). There were no cell phones; Lee and Jack make a cruel but well-deserved crank call from a pay phone to a snotty bookstore clerk. And, in the gay community, AIDS was either a constant threat or a terminal reality.

When asked if Can You Ever Forgive Me? glorifies Israel’s short-lived life of crime, Heller replies with wit: “You know, the thing is, a few people kind of asked us, ‘Do you think that this will spring up more forgeries, literary forgeries, because they’ll see how easy it was for Lee to get away with it?’ And I think, Not at all, because she only got away with it because she was such a great talent. I mean, very few people can write like Dorothy Parker.”

And it turns out that very few actresses have the depth and breadth of talent of Melissa McCarthy. I hope there are many more roles like Lee Israel in her (and our) future!

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