So, Melissa McCarthy is still around. I must say I didn’t think too much of McCarthy when she broke onto the scene in Bridesmaids, or perhaps more specifically I didn’t see what the big deal was but then again I didn’t quite grasp what the big deal was with that whole movie. Still, a lot of people liked it and the performance somehow managed to get a damn Oscar nomination. She’s stuck around too even though she’s made all sorts of crap like Identity Thief, The Boss, and The Happytime Murders, but that hasn’t hurt her because the simple fact is that most mainstream comedy film stars mostly make crap these days. Whether you’re Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, or Kevin Heart the dirty little secret about being a mainstream comedy film star is that, like being a baseball player, you can strike out in two thirds of you’re at bats and still be a star. And remain a star she has even though The Heat and Spy are probably the only unambiguous commercial and critical hits of her post-Bridesmaids career. And now right on time McCarthy has taken the next important step in a screen comedian’s career: taking a more serious role, which she’s done in the new film Can You Ever Forgive Me?
In Can You Ever Forgive Me? McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a writer who achieved some moderate success in the 70s and 80s writing magazine articles and celebrity biographies but who has fallen on hard times by the late 90s when the film begins. She’s just lost her job at a publication for surly behavior and the public has lost a lot of interest in the literary showbiz figures she used to write about. She now lives out of a cheap New York apartment she probably can’t afford with only a beloved cat and she clearly has a drinking problem. After being told by her agent (Jane Curtain) that there’s basically no way she’s going to be given an advance for her proposed biography of an obscure vaudeville comedienne Israel finds herself unsure if she’s going to even be able to pay her bills. Desperate, she decides to sell a letter she got from one of her celebrity subjects to a local book store, and in doing so she starts to wonder if maybe she could manufacture more such letters. Soon she and her more streetwise friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) are running something of a two person forgery ring which may or may not catch up with her.
I don’t think my review of this movie is going to be overly long simply because it doesn’t elicit a whole lot to talk about despite having very little wrong with it and it generally being the very definition of a movie that’s “fine.” The film largely operates as a character stud of Lee Israel and her misanthropic lifestyle. Israel lives alone and seems to be largely content with this, claiming to like her cat more than most people. It’s not entirely clear if she truly believes that or if it’s more of a defense mechanism, more than likely it’s a combination of the two. Her friendship with Jack appears to be a bit of a bright spot, one born of their mutual outsider statuses. Her criminal activity is by contrast a bit of a secondary element. Her forging is somewhat interesting but her operation is interesting and impressive but not exactly the stuff of legend. Ultimately the forging is less interesting in and of itself than it is for how it sort of gives her life purpose. In this sense she’s sort of a low stakes non-violent Walter White, an ordinary person who enters into a life of crime partly out of financial necessity and partly as a sort of midlife crisis.
Melissa McCarthy is quite good at potraying this character and making her sympathetic. If look up pictures of the real Lee Israel you find that McCarthy doesn’t really look that much like her but this doesn’t really matter too much because she certainly seems to understand the character type she’s working with and manages to give the character enough levity to keep her lifestyle from seeming rather depressing. Beyond that this mostly just strikes me as a rather serviceable drama. The film certainly looks good and evokes early 90s New York fairly well, but it’s not doing anything particularly bold visually, not that it needs to. I also wouldn’t say that the drama here, I guess there are ultimately limits to how interesting I find this character and this story, but for what it sets out to do the film acquits itself fairly well and I don’t have much to complain about.
*** out of Five