Melissa McCarthy’s greatest strength is her genius for physical comedy, but she’s rarely cast in films that fully show off her talents. More often than not she’s stuck in painfully unfunny movies (often directed by her husband) that play as extended fat jokes and little else. Yet, with Can You Ever Forgive Me? she has found a way to transfer her great physical skills to a role that doesn’t just require her to play the clown. McCarthy inhabits the role of washed-up biographer Lee Israel in a film isn’t really a comedy, but she nonetheless uses her prodigious physical skills so that for once you forget you’re watching Melissa McCarthy on screen.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is based on Israel’s memoir, written years after her downfall. Once a mildly popular journalist and biographer, Israel’s fortunes took an unfortunate turn after a disastrous unauthorized biography of Estée Lauder. Her addiction to alcohol and testy personality further sunk any chances of returning to prominence.
It’s here that the film begins. McCarthy’s Israel lives in a Manhattan apartment in the early 90s that has seen better days. (You get the feeling that she would consider finding a cheaper place in Brooklyn or Queens to be a personal insult.) Her cat is sick, her apartment is infested with flies, and her agent (Jane Curtin) refuses to take her calls. Israel’s new project is a biography of vaudeville comedian Fanny Brice, a subject no one in publishing is particularly interested in paying for.
It seems for a while that the version of Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is condemned to be a blank, someone lacking a past or deeper motivation, but the film subtly and gradually develops McCarthy’s character to create a sense of tragedy around her.
After a short, malice-filled appearance at a party thrown by her agent, Israel runs into the constantly inebriated Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) at her regular bar. He’s a perpetual hanger-on who charms his ways into people confidences as well as their wallets.
Hock is the closest thing Israel has to a friend, and her only confidante after the start of her criminal career. While doing research for her doomed biography, Israel uncovers two rare letters hidden away in a book. She steals the letters and sells one to pay for her cat’s treatment, while for the second, more diminutive letter, she appends a postscript written in the author’s style, a witty anecdote that doubles the selling price. Seeing a way to make rent and ease her financial problems, Israel shifts from embellishing to fabricating letters.
It seems for a while that the version of Israel in Can You Ever Forgive Me? is condemned to be a blank, someone lacking a past or deeper motivation, but the film subtly and gradually develops McCarthy’s character to create a sense of tragedy around her. The screenplay, written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, slowly unearths the roots of Israel’s unfulfilled aspirations. Director Marielle Heller and McCarthy often treat Israel’s anti-social tendencies and alcoholism as a source of comedy, but as her story unfolds it turns more tragic than comic. McCarthy reveals a depth that she hasn’t previously shown; it’s easy to watch her in her ratty clothes and slowly deteriorating apartment, and forget that she’s anything but a struggling writer about to throw away her last chance at success.
There’s also a clever metaphor that appears late in the film: Israel’s fly infestation has become untenable, but when the exterminator finally arrives he refuses to spray because of a terrible smell that Israel no longer even notices. She and Hock clean the apartment, which we see has become littered with half-finished food and overflowing cat refuse over the last few months. The state of her apartment mirrors the progress of her own moral decay. Small infractions, barely noticeable at the time, have built up to unsustainable levels, but at such a slow pace that Israel doesn’t even notice until others are drawn to them. Her small forgeries lead to greater lies that she can’t escape from, but by the time she’s stealing letters from archives, Israel has become inured to her transgressions. She doesn’t realize the extent of what she has done until those around her notice.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a clever vehicle for McCarthy to show off the extent of her skills. It’s undoubtedly her best performance, and one of her best films. Hopefully, it’s the start of new directions for her and not just a temporary lark.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 6 – September 16. Visit the official website for more information.