The only thing I couldn’t forgive was Melissa McCarthy’s wig.
You can always tell when an actor is hungry for an Oscar when they start taking roles that require them to wear little to no makeup, and unflattering wigs. In Hollywood, homeliness evidently translates to, “I deserve an award because I didn’t look glamorous for an hour and 45 minutes.” An Oscar plea seems to be the case for Melissa McCarthy, as she tackles the lead role in the Lee Israel biopic, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018).
Set in 1991 New York City, McCarthy plays Israel, a celebrity biographer whose work no longer supports her financially. Down on her luck and in serious need of cash, Israel begins to forge letters by deceased authors and playwrights, selling them for hundreds of dollars. I was drawn to this movie partly because I’m a big fan of Melissa McCarthy and I was curious to see her in a dramatic role, but also because no matter the medium, I’m always invested in stories about writing. I’ve seen movies about authors, journalists, screenwriters, and songwriters, but never one about a forger. The closest I’ve come is Shattered Glass (2003), the biopic about plagiarist Stephen Glass. It stars Hayden Christensen, which might be off-putting because y’know, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), but you guys, trust me on this: It’s really good and you should give it a watch. We have to forgive him at some point.
While not the most action-packed, Israel’s story is a fascinating one nonetheless, filled to the brim with deceit, desperation, and dark wit, made all the more enjoyable by McCarthy’s transformative performance. And I’m not just talking about the physicality of frumpy clothing, a bare face, and a wig that didn’t change positions, style, or length over the course of several months.
I was first introduced to Melissa McCarthy when she was playing the hilarious and lovable role of Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls (2000 – 2007, 2016), a show I could binge at least three times a year. More recently, she’s landed starring roles in comedies such as Bridesmaids (2011), The Heat (2013), and Spy (2015), all of which show her incredible comedic timing, improvisational skills, and adeptness at physical comedy. Can You Ever Forgive Me? is so far from any of those roles, as McCarthy’s portrayal of Israel allows her to play a woman bereft of love, friendship or morality, a hardened loner who is willing to do whatever it takes to survive in an industry that turned its back on her a long time ago. McCarthy successfully turns herself into Israel, delivering a performance that chases away any memories of her as a comic actress. While an Oscar nomination may be a lofty ambition, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that she’s been nominated for a Golden Globe.
McCarthy shines but it’s really Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock, Israel’s only friend and confidante, who steals the show. As Hock, Grant is so quick-witted and charismatic that any time he appeared on the screen I momentarily lost interest in Israel’s story, and became fully invested in whatever anecdote he shares with his friend. Grant gets to perform playful monologues, counter other characters with sharp and sassy responses, and be the driving force behind multiple dark and dramatic turns near the movie’s end. It’s a lot of balls to juggle but Grant handles the task with ease. I have a strong premonition that he will be recognized for his role as a supporting actor, though surely for an Oscar rather than a Golden Globe. No shade towards the Golden Globes, but the Oscars are the Oscars. By the way, is it just me or does Richard E. Grant kind of look like a thinner, slightly creepier Christopher Walken?
Maybe the literary world was less prone to scams and forgeries in 1991, but as I was watching Israel sell letter after letter to unknowing buyers, I found myself asking, “how is no one suspicious of their authenticity? Or that one woman is in possession of multiple letters by the likes of Fanny Brice, Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward, each one ending in an outrageously raunchy anecdote?” The movie handles tension extremely well as she successfully sells letters all over the city, with Israel fearing for her future every time she passes off one of her forgeries as the real deal. It’s heartbreaking to watch one buyer after another believe they’re in the presence of an exceptionally rare literary find when we know their true origins. To the surprise of no one, one of the buyers is played by McCarthy’s husband Ben Falcone, because I’m assuming it’s somewhere in her contract that he shows up in all of her movies. I’m cool with that as long as he stops directing them. Remember Tammy (2014)? Yikes.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? is well-crafted with good pacing and memorable performances. The story is interesting and tense, but don’t feel the need to rush to the theatre to see it. Paying the price of admission for this movie may distract you from its positive qualities. It’s a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but do yourself a favour and stream it on Netflix when it becomes available and watch it with your grandparents. I say that only because I was the only person under 60 in the theatre. I’m very hip with the times.
Will you see Can You Ever Forgive Me? Do you prefer Melissa McCarthy as a comedic or dramatic actress?
Let me know in the comments or on social media!