Melissa McCarthy has been about as beloved a female comedian as we have ever had in the zeitgeist of American entertainment. She has defeated cultural norms of celebrity beauty and famous women having to be unnaturally thin. She has opened a door to lead roles for female comedians that seemed previously cracked to anyone who dare try. And she has managed to do this while delivering a number of flops and generally bad movies between genuine hits like ‘Spy’ and ‘The Heat’. Which shows that her brand of comedy truly resonates in this moment.
Most others in her position might be content to coast on her celebrity and continue delivering laugh a minute comedies that hit and miss for as long as they will pay her the big bucks to do it. Instead, she has elected to take a slew of independent (and low paying) roles in a number of films that she truly believed in. And her latest, ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ is likely to land her an Oscar nomination. Yes, she is truly that good and she’s that good in a role that could have easily been quite cookie cutter in less capable hands.
In this film, McCarthy plays a real life writer named Lee Israel, who had a few moderate hits, but mostly lived a very poor life. The part of her life being illuminated for this picture takes place in the early 90’s and tells the story of how she fixed her money problem for a short period of time. You see, after losing her job and nearly her apartment, she decided to sell a celebrity letter she found while doing research for a book. The letter got her a pretty decent chunk of change. This helped her realize that these old typed letters were very simple to forge and highly lucrative. It also let her put her writing skills to work for her money again. Which really made her feel good. So, she enlisted the help of her only friend and the two of them ran these scams until the FBI caught up with them.
It’s a pretty interesting story and would have made a truly intriguing 5 minute segment on an NPR program, but what makes the film so great is the writing and performances. The music and editing are certainly moody and smooth, but this film is an actors movie. Not one of those films were actors get to boisterously scream into the void or give melodramatic monologues, but a movie where actors really get to disappear into their roles. Melissa McCarthy is so brilliant in this role that I hardly thought about the fact that it was her at all. Her huge personality is largely closeted and replaced with a lonely, guarded woman. A woman who’s admirably passionate about the subjects in her biographies, but decidedly cold to most human beings around her. She’s what most people would think of as an asshole, but the character here is given such depth and feels so lived in by this fine actress that it’s impossible to not feel empathy for her.
Richard E. Grant is also phenomenal as her flamboyantly gay drinking buddy and accomplice in crime. Every single time he shows up on screen he manages to temporarily steal the show and provide situational laughs that truly resonate. He also might get an Oscar nomination, along with writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty for their naturally funny screenplay. And depending on the strength of the MeToo movement in this years Oscars, director Mariel’s Heller might also have a shot. Although, it is not likely for such a small and subtle film.
However, regardless of this films awards chances, it is a gem that is worth your time. It’s singularly illuminating about a particular time and place, but it’s so good at it that it’s impossible to ignore. It may not be one of those movies you revisit ten years from now, but it’s undoubtedly one of the best films of this year, and you should go see it this weekend.
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