There is something of a charade going on in the title of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” It’s not that the protagonist of this smart, bleakly comedic film hasn’t done things that need forgiving, it’s that indications are she’s serenely indifferent as to whether you forgive her or not. This is who I am, she insists to the world, and if you can’t stand the heat get the hell out of the kitchen.
Starring Melissa McCarthy in a finely nuanced dramatic performance that is quite different from the comedic roles that made her famous, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a dramatization of a double life revealed by writer Lee Israel in a 2008 memoir of the same name.
The caustic, acerbic Israel, a woman who liked cats more than people — a lot more — started her Manhattan literary career as a nonfiction writer in good standing. She turned out well-regarded biographies of Tallulah Bankhead and Dorothy Kilgallen and a book on Fanny Brice was in the works.
But by 1991 Israel’s book on Estée Lauder had tanked and bills began piling up. Drinking and cursing — things she often did to excess — get her fired from a copy editing job in the film’s opening scene, and her life is in general teetering toward ruin.
A wry and melancholy narrative written with tart insight by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and quietly but faultlessly directed by Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”), “Forgive” begins with Israel’s downward slide.
Clearly not a kind soul in the best of times, someone who would as soon give you a hard time as look at you, Israel does not react well to adversity.
Three months behind in the rent for a studio apartment cluttered enough to give Marie Kondo heart failure, Israel is so in debt she can’t even come up with the overdue $41 she needs to get her vet to run much-needed tests on her beloved elderly cat.
Israel’s agent, Marjorie (a no-nonsense Jane Curtin), still invites her to literary parties (where she quietly runs amok), but with no serious publishing prospects on the horizon even her patience is at an end.
“You have destroyed every bridge I have built for you,” Marjorie forcefully tells her obdurate client. “Either become a nicer person or make a name for yourself. As an unknown you can’t be such a bitch.”
There turns out to be another way out, one that arrives out of nowhere. Hardly a sentimental soul, Israel sells a thank you note that Katharine Hepburn once wrote her. In an effort to get more money, Israel pilfers a typewritten Fanny Brice letter from a library, adds a snappy postscript to fetch a higher price and a scheme is born.
Part of the pleasure of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” comes from the artful details director Heller provides to illustrate the specifics of how Israel goes about her larcenous work.
The forger buys old paper and bakes it in the oven to age it to perfection. She figures out a way to trace signatures. She even buys a range of vintage typewriters to better duplicate the ones the famous writers she channels actually used.
The kicker in this story is that Israel was a successful forger — with hundreds of sold letters to her credit — because she was a good writer, flawlessly creating copy in multiple voices. When she says “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she knows what she’s talking about.
Though McCarthy is the film’s centerpiece, it has other unforeseen pleasures, like the way cinematographer Brandon Trost and production designer Stephen H. Carter lovingly re-create a bookstore-centric Manhattan that is fast disappearing.
Perhaps not unexpected, given a filmography that includes everything from “Logan” to “The Age of Innocence” and the classic “Withnail and I,” but still a treat is the wonderful supporting work of Richard E. Grant as perhaps Israel’s only friend, the amoral Jack Hock.
A gay man given to wearing jaunty hats and bolo ties, Hock is buoyant despite having no fixed address, ever confident in the power contained in “sparkling blue eyes and a little bit of street smarts.”
This odd couple connect (where else but) in a bar. When their first meeting ends, Israel pays him her ultimate compliment: “Jack, this was not unpleasant.” But neither one of these folks is really built for personal attachment, so you can be sure there are stormy waters ahead.
Though there is a softer side to Israel — which peeks out in a potential deeper friendship with a bookseller named Anna (a fine Dolly Wells) — the writer makes sure to keep that well-hidden, and the film does as well.
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” demands not our love for this supremely difficult person but rather our respect for her defiance of an unsympathetic world. With such an impeccable presentation of such an intransigent personality, it is hard to deny her that.
‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’
Rated: R, for language including some sexual references and brief drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes