It’s a mind-expanding exercise to watch “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” a fascinating and emotionally direct “based on a true story” drama about somebody who learned how to manipulate true stories and the words of the witty writers who create them.
Director Marielle Heller, who wowed Sundance audiences with her 2015 debut “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” plunges us into the dreary life of Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy), a morose and misanthropic writer who has seen better days. She’s a barely functioning alcoholic, broke and behind on her rent, hasn’t had a hit book in years, and can’t get her agent (Jane Curtin) to return her phone calls.
When Lee stumbles on a never-seen letter from the comedian Fanny Brice, she has what Dr. Seuss would have called “a wonderful awful idea.” After embellishing Brice’s typed words with a jokey fake P.S., Lee decides she can write faked letters from celebrities — and write bon mots from the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker that are as authentically witty as the real thing.
Lee’s new career as a forger is a lucrative one, but brings her in contact with memorabilia traders who are sometimes sweet — like Anna (Dolly Wells), a bookstore operator who takes a shine to Lee — and sometimes unsavory, like the skeevy guy (played by Ben Falcone, McCarthy’s husband) running a shop in the East Village. Along the way, Lee also befriends Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who becomes her enabling drinking buddy and sometime accomplice when the FBI starts sniffing around.
Heller, working off a martini-dry script by Nicole Holofcener (“Enough Said”) and rookie Jeff Whitty, sets a bleak mood that turns out to be completely appropriate to Lee’s self-loathing and her aversion to emotional connection. When her agent tells Lee to write more about herself, it takes a few minutes to realize that she doesn’t because spending time with long-dead writers is preferable to spending it with herself.
McCarthy jumps into Lee’s skin with both feet, again proving herself one of our most fearless actors. McCarthy channels the pugnacious anger of some of her comic characters into Lee, and it turns out to be a perfect fit. She’s particularly good pairing off with Grant, whose scene-stealing turn reveals depths of pain below the cheeky facade.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” also speaks volumes about our collective need for connection to famous names, and the lengths people will go to get it or fabricate it. Lee’s writing may have been faked, but her story’s ragged heart is all too real.
‘Can You Ever Forgive Me’
Opened October 19 in select cities; opens Friday, November 2, at the Broadway Centre Cinemas (Salt Lake City) and Megaplex Jordan Commons (Sandy). Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use. Running time: 106 minutes.