Can You Ever Forgive Me, from writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and director Marielle Heller, occupies a spot in the real world reserved for small but grand absurdities. It’s a space Heller knows well, having penned and directed The Diary of a Teenage Girl, a wicked adaptation of a novel by Phoebe Gloeckner that explored the unsettling relationship between a young girl (Bel Powley) with artistic aspirations in the early 1970s who engages in an affair with the boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) of her mother (Kristen Wiig). The dramatic and/or comedic potential in the premise is obvious from the synopsis, but there is a precise execution that allows for a blurring of the distinctions, allowing the narrative to result in something greater than either element would have been on its own.
In her latest film, Heller finds bold ways to erase the seams between drama and comedy again, by rooting around in the sad human frailty of her protagonist, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy), a writer of high-minded biographies of famous people who has fallen on hard times because, in the late 1990s, there is a greater interest in manufactured celebrity than in more traditional figures. Israel has fallen out of favor and it is apparent that she isn’t prepared to swallow her pride and suck up to anyone who might be in position to help alter her downward trajectory. She’s a smart, tough woman with none of the social skills necessary to exist alongside the world of folks who would never have read one of her biographies.
Israel is a creation straight out of the acerbic wit of a Dorothy Parker bon mot, the kind of person who would have lurked around the Algonquin Round Table, listening out for and capturing the scathing slings and arrows volleyed back and forth, while keeping a biting line or two of her own in reserve. Those writers and thinkers would have known Israel, and possibly even regarded her as comrade-in-arms, although they might have been wise enough to hold her at arm’s length, out of fear that she, at any moment, could betray a secret or two in exchange for a stiff drink, a month’s rent, and veterinarian fees for one of her beloved but perpetually ailing cats.
That is exactly what happens when Israel believes she has hit rock bottom. She settles upon a literary scheme, the forging of lost literary missive, the kind of personal exchanges between writers and those closest to them. She discovers a market for rare finds that fetches quite a fee, enough (if packaged right) that could equal what she used to earn for her biographies without the extensive and time-consuming research. These forgeries also encouraged a degree of creativity in Israel she had ignored, in favor of the sure and secure path afford to her via the sanctioned biographies that had granted her a level of respect, if not fame.
McCarthy’s Israel is a study in the inevitable futility of the small-time hustle. She plays this game as if it’s supposed to be a low-risk gamble, an under-the-radar move that’s never intended to overplay its hand. Pay some bills, cover a bottle of whiskey somewhere below the top shelf, and stay forever warm and dry. All of which is what McCarthy embodies with a well-worn shabbiness that is never close to being chic.
We see, in the form of Richard E. Grant’s character (Jack Hock), a fellow bottom dweller with illusions of grandeur, the real contrast that defines the depth of Israel’s sadness. The pair, early on, share a drink and a story or two of their shared failings, before Israel starts to let Jack in on her little scheme. Immediately Jack recognizes the grand potential and the allure of the larger payoff inherent in this scam and he goes for broke. Grant is the outsized, flamboyant comic foil, while McCarthy plays the straight woman in this absurd and almost cosmic joke.
Such is life, right?
We’ve seen this before. The sad loser, the butt of a punchline that leaves them bleeding out before our very eyes, while the yellow smiley face button bears a single drop of blood like a teardrop.
Think Will Ferrell in the twin-bill of Stranger Than Fiction and Everything Must Go, roles that marked a seemingly radical departure from his fearless and aggressive comic persona, yet couldn’t work without our familiarity with his broader instincts. These performances offer instances of broad hijinks as a springboard into a deep dive, plunging the characters (and us) into psychological pits that would be truly absurd, were we not so invested in the human frailty on display.
Or the two-for-one bargain audiences received watching Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader in The Skeleton Twins, as a set of siblings who, miraculous survive simultaneous suicide attempts and reunite afterward in pursuit of some understanding of what led them down this parallel path. At the time, I was fortunate enough to catch the film during its run at the Munich Film Festival, and right away, I assumed there would be a resounding and deafening chorus of critical hosannas for this dynamic duo. Wiig crafted a devastating portrait of the individual teardrops of a sad clown, while Hader transformed all of his usual wild and daring vampirish laughter-draining tricks into the necessary elements in a dramatic blueprint for what should have been a triumphant awards season takeover.
Now, it seems, McCarthy and Grant have stolen the game-setting page from Wiig and Hader, giving it their own unique imprint. This is despair and desperation that only comes from having lived well-past the regular highs and lows. We’re moving into the unbearable sadness of being.
The film earned a spot on the 2018 National Board of Review’s Top Films, a Supporting Actor prize for Richard E. Grant from the New York Film Critics Circle, and acting nominations for both McCarthy (Best Actress in a Motion Picture, Drama) and Grant (again Supporting Actor) from the Golden Globes.
This isn’t McCarthy’s first time earning recognition for her efforts on such a scale. Of course, there was her scene-stealing work in Bridesmaids, bending the gravitational force of Wiig, Rose Byrne and Maya Rudolph to her will, while offering teasing hints of an emotional backstory for a character as broad as a wide-open plain. These unexpected layers invested audiences in a character who otherwise wouldn’t have ranked as much of a presence in such a crowded field.
It is interesting to note that for all of the attention this human dynamo of a character drew in such a laughfest, there has never been any significant consideration of creating a spinoff vehicle for McCarthy’s comic gem. Contrast that with Russell Brand’s performance as Aldous Snow in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which led to a featured spinoff (Get Him to the Greek). The Academy Award nomination that McCarthy earned for Bridesmaids should have warranted, at least, a discussion around the corporate table.
Maybe fate had something more profound in mind for McCarthy. It looks like good things come to those who embrace and wait in sadness.