DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic Justin Chang has a review of the new movie "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" It's adapted from a memoir by Lee Israel, a New York writer who in the early 1990s began forging letters attributed to literary luminaries including Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward and selling them to unsuspecting collectors. Melissa McCarthy plays Israel in the movie, which costars Richard E. Grant and is directed by Marielle Heller. Here's Justin's review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is a rare gem, a sweet movie about a mean person in which the sweetness and the meanness don't cancel each other out. It reminds us that in the right hands, a misanthrope can make positively joyous company, especially if she has the good fortune to be played by Melissa McCarthy. As Lee Israel, a struggling biographer-turned-literary con artist, McCarthy gets more expressive nuances out of an angry scowl than I'd have thought any actor could manage.
When we first meet Lee in 1991, she's being fired from an office job for cursing and drinking, leaving her unable to pay the rent on her cluttered Manhattan apartment or her cat's medical bills. Her writing career has stalled, and her agent played by a snappy Jane Curtin tells her that no one is interested in her or the new Fanny Brice biography she's working on.
Desperate for money, Lee sells off a framed thank you letter she once received from Katharine Hepburn and learns that there's a real market for celebrity correspondence, the dishier the better. And so begins her criminal career. She uses her old-school typewriter to forge letters by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, then sells them to used bookstores for a few hundred bucks a pop.
The movie's attention to process is fascinating. We see her practicing Noel Coward's signature and baking her letters in the ovens so that the paper will look yellow with age. But the real work is in the writing, and Lee takes genuine pride in it, channeling her flair for words into inspired feats of mimicry. She becomes a fraud and an artist at the same time.
Every grifter needs an accomplice, and Lee's is a man named Jack Hock played by a droll and deliciously funny Richard E. Grant. Jack is a drifter with little money and no permanent address, just some street smarts and plenty of hustle. And he quickly latches on to Lee after running into her at a bar one evening.
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RICHARD E GRANT: (As Jack Hock) The last time I saw you - thank you - we were both pleasantly pissed at some horrible book party. Am I right?
MELISSA MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) It's slowly flooding back to me. You're friends with Julia something.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Steinberg (ph).
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) Yeah.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) She's not an agent anymore. She died.
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) She did? Jesus, that's young.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Maybe she didn't die. Maybe she just moved back to the suburbs. I always confuse those two. That's right. She got married and had twins.
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) Better to have died.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Indeed. I've just come from having my teeth bleached. How do they look?
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) Why would you do that?
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Oh, teeth are a dead giveaway.
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) OK.
GRANT: (As Jack Hock) Can I buy you a drink even though you are the posh writer?
MCCARTHY: (As Lee Israel) Thank you.
CHANG: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" becomes, among other things, and acerbic Valentine to '90s New York, a world of bars and bookstores crammed with people who deploy the English language with devilish wit and style. The fact that Lee and Jack are both gay quietly underlines their status as outsiders. At one point, Lee is caught off guard by the gently romantic overtures of a bookseller nicely played by Dolly Wells. And we see just how ill-accustomed she is to receiving human kindness, much less responding in kind.
Despite the turn to bleaker, more downbeat territory, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" feels like the movie Melissa McCarthy has been working toward her entire career. As we've seen from her performances in "Spy" and "Bridesmaids," she has always been a splendid comedian and a genius of madcap improvisation. But the lows that have dotted her uneven body of work have made it clear that even a dynamite actress needs a sharp script and a good director to soar. She gets both those things here.
The director is Marielle Heller, who tackles this character portrait with the same clear-eyed touch that distinguished her 2015 filmmaking debut, "The Diary Of A Teenage Girl." The screenplay is by Nicole Holofcener, an excellent director herself, and Jeff Whitty. They've written a terrific script about the rewards and agonies of being a writer.
You might think that Lee Israel, a professional crank who prefers cats to people, is a character only a critic could love. But Lee's crankiness is genuinely captivating in part because it's so uncompromising. Her talent as a writer goes hand-in-hand with the harsh, jaundiced way she sees the world. The title "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" which comes from one of those fake Dorothy Parker letters is clearly meant to be read sarcastically.
Lee Israel didn't need redemption. She needed a chance to let her talent speak for itself even if it meant speaking through another writer's mouth. But Israel got her due. In 2008, six years before her death, she wrote about her criminal misadventures in a book that The New York Times hailed as pretty damned fabulous. The same can be said of this movie.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic at the LA Times on Monday's show - Melissa McCarthy, who stars in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" She'll talk about growing up on a farm, her early comedy act, her breakout role in "Bridesmaids" and playing Trump's former press secretary, Sean Spicer on "Saturday Night Live." Hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Hertzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.