Magazine | December 3, 2018, Issue

Critics’ Choice

Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Mary Cybulski/Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

Most movies are made for mass audiences; a smaller number are made for Oscar voters; and a few, a very few, seem to be made specifically for critics. And then out of that small fraction there is an even rarer type of movie — the sort that critics like not because it seems to be for them but because it feels like it’s about them.

The most obvious example is Sideways, Alexander Payne’s much-praised 2004 movie about a misanthropic wine aficionado with an unpublished book drinking his way through California wine country. It was impossible to read the reviews and not feel a deep personal empathy bleeding through in the critical response to Paul Giamatti’s character. Likewise some of the rapturous reactions to Pixar’s Ratatouille, which cast a food critic as its villain and then rehabilitated him in its final act, to the obvious delight of professional reviewers.

I get a similar feeling reading some of the rave reviews for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, in which Melissa McCarthy trades in her broad crowd-pleasing comedy for a grumpy, Giamattian performance as the misanthropic celebrity biographer Lee Israel. Dowdy and acerbic, a lesbian who pushed away her last girlfriend and gets on well only with her ailing cat, McCarthy’s Israel can’t publish anymore because she’s out of step with current tastes: We see her at a Reagan-era literary party where Tom Clancy brags about never having writer’s block (did Clancy really go to Manhattan literary parties?), which contrasts with Israel’s inability to get her agent (Jane Curtin) to find a publisher willing to advance her any money for her planned biography of the vaudeville star Fanny Brice.

That unwillingness, we’re given to understand, is more a reaction to Israel’s personality (and alcoholism) than a rejection of her writing skills. But either way it reduces her to late-night copyediting to make ends meet, and then, when her temper costs her that job, she seems doomed to eviction or worse. At which point fate and temptation intervene: She finds a letter from Brice folded up in one of the library texts she’s using for research, swipes it, and sells it to a dealer — who happens to mention that celebrity letters fetch more when they’re a little more vivid. This idea sends Israel down the slippery slope through embellishment to outright forgery; soon she’s writing Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker correspondence that’s more cutting and acidic than the real thing and selling the forgeries for enough money to keep her superintendent happy, her cat medicated, and her glass of Scotch filled.

Along for the ride is a friend she makes one particularly boozy afternoon — Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), a flamboyant literary-Brit who has also fallen on hard times while retaining a seedy charm that smooths his progress through New York’s gay demimonde. He becomes her confidant, her cat sitter (disastrously), and her suave and winning fence — until one of Coward’s friends tells the dealers that there’s no way one of her documents is real and the whole scheme begins its slow unraveling.

Along the way we get a friendship and a flirtation between Israel and one of her used-bookstore-owner marks (an extremely winning Dolly Wells), which dissolves because McCarthy’s character can’t handle intimacy. We get a bravura performance from Grant, an actor who works a lot (I last saw him pop up as a player king on Game of Thrones) but rarely gets a role to really run with. And we get proof that McCarthy can deflate the buoyancy that’s made her a superstar and play her savage side in a way that generates laughs, repulsion, and sympathy all at once.

These are all virtues; the director, Marielle Heller, has made an impressively effective movie out of a story about a miserable person’s unimportant crime spree. At the same time I’m not sure it’s pure critical disinteredness that has elevated Can You Ever Forgive Me? to its remarkable 98 percent–fresh score on Rotten Tomatoes.

Not to stereotype the critical personality or anything, but if you relate in a particular kind of way to a character who prefers writing about people to knowing them in the flesh, who brings a caustic critic’s eye to everyday life, who writes about celebrities in part to avoid certain kinds of self-examination, who lives in a pre-Internet New York where every other store appears to be a used bookstore, who loves Fanny Brice and hates Tom Clancy, who drinks to excess amid heaps of books . . . well, then the drab and depressing and sometimes boring aspects of this film will probably seem more forgivable than they might to a slightly more, shall we say, normal moviegoer.

Critics are human beings too, and they deserve — like the unhappy Lee Israel — to be recognized and understood. I’m glad they adore Can You Ever Forgive Me? You might like it too. Just probably not quite as passionately as those reviewers who watch its antiheroine’s progress thinking, “There but for the grace of God and a regular reviewing gig go I.”

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