Can You Ever Forgive Me? Melissa McCarthy breaks through into drama
Writer-director Marielle Heller's last film (her first) The Diary of a Teenage Girl, went down as one of the most underrated of 2015, topping my list of the best films of that year when I saw it at the start of the year and still hanging on in the number ten spot twelve months later. Hopefully, as with Kenneth Lonergan's awards winner, Manchester by the Sea and his earlier sleeper masterpiece Margaret the success of this film will encourage a resurgence in the earlier film's popularity. Because as great as this film is, it doesn't match that film for bravery or strangeness.
This film too is a period piece based on an autobiographical work, although this time with a true crime hook. The film follows Lee Israel, a misanthropic failing biographer who, unable to work with others due to her alcoholism and abrasive personality, resorts to forging letters by famous authors in order to pay the bills. She is assisted in this by Jack Hock, a fellow washed-up queer social misfit, played by Richard E Grant, who stepped in at the last minute to the role that may as well have been written for him.
There is always a degree of uncertainty when a well known comic actor makes a shift into drama, especially in a film with as many awards potential as this one and an actor with as frequently poor of a track record as Melissa McCarthy. It often feels like a cynical grab at respectability and with a film like this that functions primarily as a character study, this could very easily have been mawkish awards bait.
Thankfully, and possibly due to the maturity of Heller's directorial hand, McCarthy seems serious about the role and gives a far better performance than anything we've seen from her before. The role really did need a performer with the kind of comedic skill that she regularly shows here but also someone with dramatic range and the total lack of movie star image that made McCarthy such a big noise when she first caught mainstream attention in Bridesmaids. Like Earl Stone in The Mule (also out this week) Lee is a character who has made a lot of mistakes and believes she's far too late in life to be rectifying them. She has made peace with the fact that she is not a "people person", she's a cat person, in any other movie she wouldn't be the main character, she would be the main character's crabby neighbour. But placing her at the centre of the story brings out a degree of tragedy and self-effacing humour in both her and Jack. Jack has been putting on a front his whole life and Lee is a person who never learned how to put one on at all. These are two people who made things work for a while but are coming to terms with the fact that those days are long over and now all they can do is find solace in the fact that there is at least one person who understands them more than they would let on.