The two actors bring a lively streak to director Marielle Heller's literary drama

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Melissa McCarthy dials down and gives her best, most well-rounded screen performance to date in director Marielle Heller's piercing portrait of loneliness, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"   

McCarthy, who since her "Bridesmaids" breakthrough has been in broad comic mode (to diminishing returns, it should be noted), plays Lee Israel, a down-and-out celebrity biographer with a cantankerous personality her station in life can't justify. Her paychecks have dried up, she's behind on her rent, and her agent can't get her an advance on her next project, a proposed biography of vaudeville star Fanny Brice. 

More importantly, her agent — played wonderfully by Jane Curtin — doesn't want to get her an advance. Lee's disposition is so toxic that no one wants to help her. She's miserable and friendless, her cat her only companion, and she spends her free time drinking scotch alone at a Manhattan dive bar.

Based on a true story, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" could wallow in its sadness, but it's a surprisingly funny venture, and Heller ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl") turns it into a lively caper as Lee turns to forging letters from literary greats and selling them to book shops as her means of getting out of the hole she's dug herself. 

She's helped along in her scheme by Jack Hock (a marvelous Richard E. Grant, who deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work), a sordid acquaintance whose penchant for mischievous behavior helps him become her kindred spirit of sorts. 

These two misfits have a good racket going — Lee even cooks her letters in the oven, to help them look weathered and worn — but it's not long before everything comes crashing down and the FBI is on their tail. 

McCarthy — who, too, should have an Oscar nomination coming her way for her understated work here — does a superb job of dialing into Lee's intellect, and Lee's ability to disappear into her subjects. When she's forging letters by Dorothy Parker, she's not just copying her style, she's speaking as her, and she takes great personal pride in the authenticity of her forgeries. For her, it's the ultimate form of tribute, and the writing gig of a lifetime. "I'll have you know," Lee says indignantly, "I'm a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker!"

McCarthy also captures Lee's fear as the walls start collapsing in around her. She's not made out for criminal life, she's just trying to make ends meet, and as things quickly get away from her she's terrified of what's waiting around the corner.

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" — the title comes from a line Lee uses in one of her letters as Parker — is enlightening in its depiction of depression and desperation, and the way those twin forces can eat away at one's soul. It's not a rebirth for McCarthy, but it's an awakening, and a reminder of what she can do when she dives into a project worthy of her talents.

In "Forgive," she's unforgettable.  

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Can You Ever Forgive Me?'

GRADE: A-

Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use

Running time: 107 minutes

 

 

  

 

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