Melissa McCarthy is a comedy goddess who has forged her reputation by breathing unexpected life, humor, and charm into shallow characters and thin premises. The Heat works only because she seems so essentially unbound by mediocre writing — and because of her incredible chemistry with co-star Sandra Bullock, who is nearly flawless in everything she’s been in since The Net and I won’t hear any opinions to the contrary. (Side note: In my chosen timeline The Blind Side never happened). The same goes for Spy and McCarthy’s star-making performance in Bridesmaids, which is much smaller than it would seem based on the impression it left on audiences. But this year she’s starred in two disappointing comedies: Life of the Party (which she co-wrote with her husband, Ben Falcone, who directed) and The Happytime Murders. If there is one thing 2018 has proven about McCarthy, it’s that even she and her prodigious talent can’t make something from anything.
This brings us to Can You Ever Forgive Me? which represents a departure not only from McCarthy’s recent projects but from her career as a whole. This movie shows that she is not only a great comedian but also a deeply gifted actor.
Based on Lee Israel’s autobiography of the same name, Can You Ever Forgive Me? recounts her misadventures in literary forgery. Israel (played by McCarthy) is a talented, but under-appreciated and oft-drunk, biographer. She feels forced to the sidelines of the early 90s literary scene while lesser (but more accessible) writers, like Tom Clancy (played in a hilarious bit part by Kevin Carolan), earn millions off schlock. After losing her job, she subsequently sells an old letter written to her by a prominent writer. Sensing an opportunity, Israel cooks up a scheme to forge more literary epistles using her biographical talent to inhabit (or hide behind) the voices of others. Of course, as you guessed from the title, it all eventually goes sideways, but not before she learns some valuable life lessons and has some fun along the way.
If there is a common criticism to be made of McCarthy’s performances to date, it’s that she seems more invested in finding the laugh than exploring the depths of her characters. While she does get a few moments in Forgive Me to showcase her larger-than-life charisma, it’s couched mostly in Israel’s acid wit. Because of that, it’s here, maybe for the first time, that we find McCarthy fully immersed in a character. And Israel is not an easy character to play; she is surly, jaded, and self-sabotaging. Of course, it’s all of these “flaws” that also make her intriguing, brilliant, and worthy of empathy. And McCarthy (with help from the always brilliant Richard E. Grant as Israel’s drinking buddy Jack Hock) walks the tightrope between likable and loathsome perfectly.
Like in any great morality play, there comes the moment in Forgive Me when Israel has to face the consequences of the crimes she’s committed. She’s bilked countless people out of their money (and not just those with more cash than sense). She’s also scammed a humble and kind bookseller with genuine feelings for her and done irrevocable damage to her relationship with Hock, who was possibly her only friend. It’s here when it would be easy for Israel to stick her chin up, shed a quick tear, and say that she regrets what she’s done, that she’s learned her lesson, and that she won’t do it again. But Israel doesn’t go that far. She doesn’t regret the crimes she’s committed, and if she’s sorry, it’s only because of the punishment to come. McCarthy, and the movie, avoid most of the common pitfalls and clichés of a typical morality drama. Just as there’s no easy reconciliation between Israel and those she hurt, there’s also no easy reconciliation between Israel and the audience. She has not transformed into a more honest, kind, or extroverted person through her experiences (all those easy denominators of “goodness”). Instead, she has gained hard-won courage and self-awareness. And it’s in part due to the rarity of these character traits that McCarthy’s seemingly effortless performance is so remarkable.
Despite all its nuance, Forgive Me does bend to one cliché, common in films about writers: The movie inevitably ends with the writer announcing that they plan on penning a book about their experiences. But that small knock, like Israel and like the rest of McCarthy’s 2018, is forgivable. After all, even as a critic, if you can’t laugh at a Melissa McCarthy movie then you should have a doctor check your pulse. And if Forgive Me represents some sort of winking apology from McCarthy for an otherwise lackluster year, then yes, I absolutely accept. But I do hope it means more of these sharp dramatic performances sprinkled in amongst her typical (and generally fantastic) comedy.