A lit­er­ary forgery be­comes a funny, sad McCarthy ve­hi­cle

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - Broward - - MOVIES - By Michael Phillips

A cer­tain fac­tion of Melissa McCarthy’s fans won’t know what hit ’em when they get a look at “Can You Ever For­give Me?” I’m not sug­gest­ing they, or any­one, skip it; it’s one of my fa­vorite pic­tures of the year. But McCarthy is tak­ing on a role in a dif­fer­ent comic (and dra­matic) reg­is­ter than the ones that made her fa­mous.

McCarthy knows a lot about a lot as a per­former, and she’s smart enough to widen her range. One of her stand­out ve­hi­cles, “Spy,” took ad­van­tage of her less brash, more in­te­rior qual­i­ties, as did the ear­lier Bill Mur­ray-led heart­warmer “St. Vin­cent.” Plainly McCarthy was more than ready for this un­likely tri­umph of a biopic. The whole movie’s ter­rific — a lit­tle funny, a lit­tle sad, a sharp evo­ca­tion of early 1990s lit­er­ary Man­hat­tan as seen from both sides of the win­dow­pane. Look­ing out. And look­ing in.

In 1991, celebrity bi­og­ra­pher and mul­ti­di­rec­tional crank Lee Is­rael found her­self des­per­ate, be­tween projects, un­able to get her calls re­turned, alone with her cats and be­hind on her rent. Then she hit on a mon­ey­mak­ing idea that also scratched her lit­er­ary itch: Across nearly two years, with the help of a barfly ac­com­plice, she care­fully forged 400-odd letters pre­sum­ably writ­ten by her lit­er­ary and show busi­ness idols, Noel Coward, Mar­lene Di­et­rich and Fanny Brice among them.

The scam worked un­til it didn’t. Af­ter the feds caught up with her, and she paid her debt to so­ci­ety, Is­rael pub­lished her con­fes­sional mem­oir “Can You Ever For­give Me?” in 2008. More re­cently screen­writ­ers Ni­cole Holofcener and MPAA rat­ing: R (for lan­guage in­clud­ing some sex­ual ref­er­ences, and brief drug use) Run­ning time: 1:47 Jeff Whitty be­gan de­vel­op­ing a script, which for a time was to co-star Ju­lianne Moore and Chris O’Dowd. That didn’t work out, but McCarthy and Richard E. Grant did. With the guid­ance of di­rec­tor Marielle Heller, ev­ery­thing else did too.

Heller’s first film, “Di­ary of a Teenage Girl” (2015), qual­i­fies as the best Amer­i­can com­ing-of-age pic­ture hardly any­one saw. “Can You Ever For­give Me?” is a dif­fer­ent story, but both her films to date suc­ceed by fi­ness­ing each scene, each re­la­tion­ship, ev­ery lit­tle slight and grace note. The ana­log early ’90s world, be­fore eBay, Ama­zon and the dig­i­tal in­sur­rec­tion, comes to life in sub­tle but in­deli­ble ways, from the grat­ing hum of an elec­tric Smith-Corona type­writer to the bur­nished glow of Bran­don Trost’s cin­e­matog­ra­phy.

Grant plays Is­rael’s some­time friend and some­time part­ner in de­cep­tion, a gad­about named Jack Hock. The role has been em­bel­lished a good deal for the film ver­sion; Grant’s outre comic flour­ishes are pretty price­less, and he works off McCarthy’s dour, cyn­i­cal de­meanor like a mas­ter. The script re­quires more than comic wiles, though, and this is where Heller’s film pays off. A ten­ta­tive ro­mance be­tween Is­rael and an open­hearted book­seller (Dolly Wells, ex­cel­lent) gen­er­ates a world of feel­ing just out­side Is­rael’s grasp. Jane Curtin plays Is­rael’s so­cialite agent, with just enough edge to make her in­ter­est­ing.

Wisely, Heller doesn’t in­flate the tone or im­part an overt mes­sage. But by the end, “Can You Ever For­give Me?” has truly brought you into this woman’s life, head space, long­ings and tastes, and I found the whole of it quite mov­ing. The lovely, del­i­cate jazz-based mu­si­cal score by Nate Heller (the di­rec­tor’s brother) doesn’t hurt; nor does a ju­di­cious use of stan­dards and cov­ers from ear­lier times, and a more el­e­gant, ro­man­tic Man­hat­tan. More than once we hear from the vo­cal­ist and pi­anist Blos­som Dearie on the sound­track. That’s prac­ti­cally four stars right there. Michael Phillips is a Tri­bune critic.

MARY CYBULSKI/SEARCH­LIGHT PIC­TURES

A ten­ta­tive ro­mance emerges be­tween Lee Is­rael (Melissa McCarthy, right) and a book­seller (Dolly Wells).

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