Anyone who ever thought Melissa McCarthy wasn’t a serious actress hasn’t been paying attention. When I first saw her as Megan, the plump sister of the groom who wore a carpal tunnel brace and a strictly utilitarian wardrobe, in 2011’s “Bridemaids,” she kind of scared me at first. But it became clear that Megan was the most centered of the four titular wedding party participants and the most at ease with her own sexual needs. She rightfully was Oscar-nominated for committing grand larceny in almost every scene she was in, from her gross-out bathroom antics to her aggressive pep talk with star Kristen Wiig.
Certainly, McCarthy is an exceedingly funny lady who can easily get away a cheesy pick-up line like, “I’m glad he’s single because I’m going to climb that like a tree.” But like many clowns, she probably harbors a desire to reveal her dramatic side, one that came out somewhat as a divorcee who has a hard time balancing the demands of her job with being a single parent of bullied young son in 2014’s “St. Vincent.”
The arrival of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is more than enough evidence that McCarthy is the real deal as she closes off her usual buoyant avenues of emoting for a darker, morose and complex persona – one paved in frustration and failed opportunity that is uniquely female in nature. Her usual brassy bravado is tucked away beneath a frumpy veneer of bitterness, disappointment and deeply seated resentment over anyone else’s success. As Lee Israel, a real-life Manhattan-based middle-aged biographer (I still have a hard-cover copy of her book about Dorothy Kilgallen – does anyone remember “What’s My Line?”), she is at the point in her life in 1991 where she is doing a lot more drinking than writing. McCarthy manages to retreat to a rather painful place of misery while embodying someone who admittedly prefers the company of Jersey, her black-and-white cat (a great feline performance by the way), over humans and commits to it fully. I kept waiting for her to crack and show a bit of her sunny side, but this is a marvelously overcast performance that pays off big time as the movie concludes.
We see her attend a party thrown by her literary agent (Jane Curtin), who is frustrated that Israel can only write about other people but refuses to exploit on her own uniquely acerbic and bitter voice. Adding to the author’s frustration is hearing Tom Clancy brag about his mega advance for his next best seller and realizing there is an uneven playing field in the world of publishing when it comes to gender. To make herself feel better, she takes a few of her host’s semi-empty rolls of toilet paper and absconds with someone else’s winter coat for the coat check area. We all know people who compensate this way as they feel constantly denied from the spoils that come easily to others and have no problem with indulging in such unscrupulous behavior. This then leads to her solution to having lost her job and having a pile of outstanding bills: She starts to forge letters from dead celebrities such as Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward and sell them to establishments that deal in such artifacts. Hubris and cutting corners, however, will lead to her downfall.
Even if McCarthy isn’t cracking a joke a minute as the often nasty and vindictive Israel, comic relief does arrive in the form of a marvelous Richard E. Grant when his gay bon vivant Jack Hock (rhymes with “big cock”) re-unites with Israel at one of her preferred drinking establishments. He is a waggish wastrel who deals in cocaine and has little control when it comes to sexual encounters. There is a wonderful odd couple energy between the two actors as it becomes clear they have no problem with lying, stealing or cheating when it comes to their own survival.
Hats off to whoever insisted on hiring a female director and screenwriter – namely, the extremely talented up-and-coming Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), who visually captures ‘90s Manhattan in all its power-suited glory — and scribe Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”). It might seem odd that the fact Israel is a lesbian is barely acknowledged until she goes on a date with a sympathetic bookstore owner (Dolly Wells) and we meet her ex in the form of Anna Deavere Smith. But that might just be the least interesting thing about her.
But back to McCarthy. One thing she never does is to curry our favor in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” She is steadfastly and fascinatingly unpleasant. Yet anyone who has ever engaged in the act of creation will summon some sympathy for this devil of a human being. That is called acting. And McCarthy scores on all counts.