Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Jane Curtin, Dolly Wells; directed by Marielle Heller; 106 minutes; R for coarse language, including some sexual references, and brief drug use.
As sharp-tongued, alcoholic misanthropes go, Lee Israel deserves her place in cinema’s most un-hateable pantheon. Israel, a freelance journalist, made a name for herself in the 1970s by writing about such similarly tough-minded women as Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead. But by the 1980s, Israel’s usual work had evaporated, a descent not helped by her prickly demeanor and a spreading infotainment ethos demanding that writers develop personae as vivid as their subjects.
It’s at this low point that we meet Melissa McCarthy’s Lee in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” in which the actress brings her dowdiest, most disagreeable A-game to a caustically funny, improbably affecting enterprise. When she’s fired from the latest of a series of lobster-shift clerical jobs, Lee calls her agent (a sublimely deadpan Jane Curtin) to revive a long-gestating biography of Fanny Brice. Later, at a literary party, Lee steals toilet paper and a stranger’s coat before repairing to a local bar.
You’ve never seen McCarthy like this. And she’s not even the best thing about the movie.
It’s at that corner watering hole that Lee meets Jack, a dashing but vaguely disreputable character who, when she asks what he does, answers with a cryptic, “This and that. Mostly that.” Portrayed by Richard E. Grant in a delectable mélange of catty observational wit and almost childlike guilelessness, Jack winds up being the perfect, arms-wide foil for Lee’s crabbed cynicism. And he winds up being a similarly appropriate henchman in the crime spree she embarks on as an act of economic opportunism and, ultimately, creative defiance.
Primarily, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is most memorable as a classic two-hander, with McCarthy and Grant sparking and riffing off each other like the musicians who can be heard on the film’s jazz-infused soundtrack.
In some ways, Lee is a stretch for McCarthy, who’s best known for such broad comedies as “Bridesmaids” and its successors. She’s more muted and layered here, but Lee still resides squarely in the actress’ wheelhouse as a woman unburdened by conventional notions of femininity and politesse. As the extravagantly un-pin-downable Jack, Grant gives her a fabulous co-star to play against or lean into, as the characters’ mercurial relationship demands. Together, he and McCarthy give spiky, sympathetic life to the thwarted promise of so many New York misfits.