Melissa McCarthy reached new career heights with an awards-worthy performance as hard-drinking literary forger Lee Israel in one of the year’s more surprising biopics
Irascible biographer-turned-forger Lee Israel is an endurance test of a protagonist. She’s a rude, arrogant, self-pitying pariah, fermenting in disappointment and whisky-soaked bitterness, distancing herself further and further from a world she has grown to despise. Played by a never-better Melissa McCarthy, she’s in almost every scene of Marielle Heller’s fact-based drama Can You Ever Forgive Me? – a belligerent drinking buddy hauling us around early 90s New York, swearing, scheming, lying and offending anyone she encounters.
There’s a delicate balance at play in the film, loosely based on Israel’s memoir: it replays her unlawful exploits and sharp-edged traits in all their jagged, amoral glory, while also managing to gain our full emotional investment. There’s no forced attempt to smooth out her edges but with a script co-written by cinema’s most underrated humanist Nicole Holofcener, it becomes impossible not to feel at least a shred of empathy. Israel has talent but is unable to find a legal way of making it profitable and her descent into criminality – doctoring and eventually fabricating celebrity letters – doubles as a strangely appropriate way of utilising her specific skills.