By John H. Foote
When I think of Melissa McCarthy, I smile because she is a fearless comedic actress who throws herself into her comedy with a courage that is admirable, remarkable even. A stout, but pretty woman, she is hardly the sort of person we think about when the words movie star come to mind, yet she has managed to become exactly that, one of the finest actors and most powerful women in the business. It is a long way from Sookie on Gilmour Girls, the place I first encountered McCarthy.
Her performance as Megan, the tough-talking, bizarre woman in Bridesmaids (2011) is not the stuff of legend, a brash, wild performance that landed her a well deserved Oscar nomination for supporting actress. I am not sure I laughed harder in a cinema than when she burst into the washroom in the throes of food poisoning, drops her underwear and sits on the sink to do her business. Fearless. But then there is also something poignant about Megan when she comes to see the heroine of the film and lets her know she has her friends, now get up and get on with her life. In the years since, McCarthy has become a major box office draw as a comic star in some wildly diverse films that have her usually playing a brash, vulgar character, which in some cases has worked.
Her best work has been in the aforementioned Bridesmaids (2011), Identity Theft (2013), The Heat (2014) with Sandra Bullock, Spy (2015), The Boss (2015) and more recently Ghostbusters (2016), which yes, I did not mind at all.
In Can You Ever Forgive Me? she is astonishing, blowing away anything she has done previously. Seeing her here as a dour, unpleasant, altogether toxic woman, writer Lee Israel is something of a revelation because she so completely inhabits the character. Once a successful author with a best selling book about Tallulah Bankhead and a strong friendship with no less than Katherine Hepburn, she finds herself now broke, and without work. Fired from her job as a fact checker at the New Yorker, she sinks into drink and despair, just adding to the fact she has long been in a depression. How do we know? Wait for it.
She shows up at parties poorly dressed, unbathed, and is toxic to everyone in the room. She does not care who she impresses, she does not care if people like her because she is so filled with self-loathing it has stopped mattering to her. When her precious cat becomes ill she does not have the money to pay for the vet to see her pet, so comes up with a novel way of getting the money. Lee begins writing personal letters of famous writers, absolutely fraudulent, and selling them as originals. Her gifts for prose are inherent to her as a writer, and she becomes a master of deception in signatures. She figures out to make the paper look old, she researches to find out relevant information about the subjects lives and then gets to work writing very personal notes back and forth between family and friends. She then sells them as originals, making huge profits.
While it says something about society that they are so obsessed with letters of those who are long dead, does it not say more, that Lee hatches this scheme when she cannot write her own books anymore? Fast money for lies but it allows her to get out of debt, to pay for her cat, to pay the rent she owes and to have her filthy apartment cleaned.
The cleaning of the apartment is what tells us how deep her depression and self-loathing truly is. A bug exterminator will not even enter the place until it is cleaned out, and even her friend John (Richard E. Grant) notices a dreadful smell in the apartment. Lee did not notice. She had no clue or did not care that cat droppings were beneath her bed and furniture, the littler box rarely used, or cleaned for that matter. The flies that infest the apartment are a direct result of the cat droppings, the smell as well. Anyone who has a cat or two knows that the odour is unmistakable and unpleasant, like dirty bleach it is so strong. That Lee did not notice is frightening as to the state of her mind, how could she not? Or did she come to believe she deserved to live in such filth?
McCarthy manages to draw sympathy from the audience in her fine portrayal of Lee, an unhappy, very angry, unpleasant drunk who has no friends until she meets John in a bar and allows the homeless drunk to sleep on her couch. He becomes her ally in her business, a bright-eyed cheerleader who is thrilled with what she is doing and more than happy to help her out.
Eventually, of course, the FBI closes in on Lee, and those buying her letters stop, and want their money back. She has committed fraud, enormous fraud, and in its own way a dangerous slander to those long dead who she has impersonated.
Let me state emphatically that McCarthy deserves to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress for her stunning turn as Lee. Though she is unpleasant and horrible to anyone within range of her, the actress manages to find a vulnerability just below the surface that the audience gets to experience. Watch her on her date with the shy bookshop owner, you can see the fear in getting close to another person, for fear of getting hurt. I suspect Lee knew a great deal of pain in her life, which is why she is so icy cold and pushes those close to her away. Watching her at the party scene early in the film is difficult because she so clearly does not want to be there, but only because she knows no one wants her there because she is so toxic.
Richard E. Grant is superb as the devilish rogue John, who sees himself as her partner in crime, but is really just her drinking buddy and deep down he knows he needs her a lot more than she needs him. But damned if he is not loyal to her, even as the FBI is closing in around her. In its own way, this is a buddy film, without them being close buddies as in so many others. John is an irresponsible ass, a man who is looking for her to get another drink and he knows it. Like Lee he hates himself, but unlike Lee has come to terms with it and smiles through his life to beat back the pain. He has learned to do what she has not.
New York City looks as drab and as unpleasant as does Lee, no real colour, no real personality and that is just not New York City. Bursting with life, we see through Lee’s eyes how dead the city truly is to her. How terrible and lonely her life has become.
Marielle Henner directed the film, perfectly capturing the sense of who Lee was during this time in her life. She obviously creates an environment of comfort for her actors who go ahead and do some of the finest work of their careers.
Watch for both McCarthy and Grant to make it into the Oscar race, and the film and director just might make the grade too. An exceptional film, an outstanding the biography in which the filmmakers clearly love the subject more than she ever could have loved herself. And McCarthy
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.