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Melissa McCarthy shines in 'Forgive'

by David-Elijah Nahmod

ichard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in director Marielle Heller's "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Photo: Fox Searchlight
ichard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in director Marielle Heller's "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Photo: Fox Searchlight  

Best-known for her appearances in over-the-top comedies such as "Life of the Party," Melissa McCarthy is given a rare opportunity to play a dramatic role in the new film "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," which opens Friday at the AMC Kabuki and AMC Metreon. McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a lesbian who, during the 1970s and 80s, became well-known for writing biographies of actress Tallulah Bankhead, cosmetics queen Estee Lauder and journalist Dorothy Kilgallen.

By 1990 Israel's writing career was in steep decline. Her agent was uninterested in her planned biography of 1920s and 30s Broadway superstar Fannie Brice. This, combined with an abrasive personality and excessive drinking, led Israel to become persona non grata in the literary world. Unable to pay her bills, she turned to forgery. Israel pulled herself out of debt by forging over 400 letters supposedly written by deceased actors and writers, selling them to dealers and collectors.

As played by McCarthy, Israel comes across as a somewhat lovable villain. She's not really evil, just a sad, angry woman who needs to pay her rent and the vet bill for Jersey, her cat, who might be the only living creature she loves. McCarthy is magnificent at conveying Israel's sadness, her world-weariness, and the desperation that leads her to a life of crime.

Israel is assisted in her criminal enterprise by Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a charming gay grifter who appears to have no fixed address. Jack is a petty thief who gets beaten up after picking up a hustler he cannot pay.

"He was a tall blonde who died of AIDS at 47," Grant told B.A.R. during a brief interview. "He spent two years in jail for attacking a cab driver with a knife. He grifted around New York and got beaten up by people he slept with. He was a Labrador, she was a porcupine. It's the most unlikely platonic story of love and friendship, and that's very attractive to play."

Grant said what attracted him to the project "was the script, Melissa McCarthy, and director Marielle Heller. The film was produced by women, the majority of the cast were women. There was a detestosteroned atmosphere. And Melissa is incredibly open. What you see is what you get."

Grant enjoyed the film's New York City location shoot, which included Julius', a bar in Greenwich Village that dates back to the 1860s, and that began attracting a gay clientele during the 1950s. "It was nice to go back to a bar where people are actually talking to each other," he said.

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" has a wonderful supporting cast. SNL alum Jane Curtin shines as Marjorie, Israel's tough-as-nails literary agent who gives Israel some much-needed advice. Dolly Wells is sweet as Anna, a lonely, gullible bookshop owner who falls for Israel's scam, and who might be falling for Israel herself. Anna Deavere Smith is superb in an all-too-brief role as Israel's ex-girlfriend, a no-nonsense woman who has neither time nor patience to deal with her.

Lee Israel and Jack Hock emerge as two complex characters who commit amoral acts and go to absurd lengths to justify their actions. But they aren't completely devoid of decency. They walked to the beat of their own drums and paid the price for it. Their story makes for one of the year's best films.

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