By Eleanor Ringel Cater
“I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!”
So proclaims Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), the sad-sack, sourly funny anti-heroine of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Set in the early 1990s, the movie is based on the true story of a writer who, having had some success with biographies (including a New York Times best-seller), found herself at an unfortunate impasse.
Her acerbic agent (Jane Curtin, wonderful) won’t return her phone calls unless Lee pretends she’s Nora Ephron (who later issued a cease and desist order against her). Her beloved cat is dying. Her apartment is a depressing, filthy health hazard. And her former lover, Elaine, just shakes her head. “It’s not my job to pull you off the ledge anymore.”
Lee is an isolated, lonely alcoholic with a well of anger and bitterness that isn’t doing anybody any good, least of all herself. Then, she discovers a way to get some ready cash. She starts selling forged letters supposedly written by literary luminaries like Noel Coward, Edna Ferber, Lillian Hellman and, of course, Dorothy Parker.
Her scheme begins innocently enough. A letter by Fanny Brice literally falls into her lap while she’s doing research. She takes it to a local bookstore and they buy it for 75 bucks. But, adds the clerk, the note might have gone for as much as $350 if it’d been a bit, well, juicier.
And whatever else is going on in Lee’s life, juicy she can do. Thus begins a career of selling some 400 fake letters, nicely embellished with such made-up Parker-esque witticisms as “I have hangover worthy of a museum.”
Lee is nothing if not good at what she does.
As is McCarthy. “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is her Oscar calling card. She’s been nominated before – for her raucous comic performance in “Bridesmaids” – but this role moves her into the Big Time, i.e., a superb tragicomic performance, cannily nuanced and vanity free.
Her Lee is someone who looks as if she might slightly smell. When she’s invited to a literary party by Curtin, she makes off not just with shrimp canapés and some rolls of toilet paper, but also someone else’s nice winter coat.
Fair warning: the movie dares to be as dowdy and dreary as its protagonist. There’s none of the fireworks or edginess of any number of lower depths pictures like, say, Barbet Schroeder’s unforgettable “Barfly” starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway.
Well, actually, there are a few, but they’re mostly provided by Richard E. Grant, pitch-perfect as a preening, clever and lascivious queen (remember this is the pre-woke ‘90s). If Grant were a lesser talent, it would be an offensive stereotype, but he isn’t, and it isn’t either.
In a sense, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is about lives of unquiet desperation. It is, as the New York Times said in its review of Israel’s book of the same title – “sordid and pretty damn fabulous.”
That’s meant as a recommendation.