Melissa McCarthy is going to surprise a lot of people when they see Can You Ever Forgive Me?, but she shouldn’t. That’s not a knock on the performance, which is great and deservedly earning her Oscar talk. Directed by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl) and written by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, the fact-based film stars McCarthy as Lee Israel, a writer who’s seen her early promise dry up and career opportunities dwindle, leading her to embark on a sideline career forging letters by figures like Noël Coward and Dorothy Parker. McCarthy’s almost unrecognizable at first, less because of her character’s drab wardrobe, but because of Lee’s seeming inability to smile and a tendency to recede into the background. Almost without fail, McCarthy plays the biggest personality in the room whenever she’s onscreen. Here she plays someone seemingly embarrassed by her own existence, a woman who’s let her discomfort curdle into bitterness and disappointment into hostility. It’s a dramatic turn from a funny woman and will no doubt be praised as a huge departure. And it is.
Except, in the ways that matter most, it isn’t. McCarthy doesn’t emerge as a dramatic actor in Can You Ever Forgive Me? so much as turn up the volume on the dramatic elements that have always been a part of her performances. McCarthy first caught people’s eye as a supporting player on the WB drama Gilmore Girls, where she was so good at playing the part of sunny chef Sookie St. James, best friend to Lauren Graham’s Lorelai Gilmore, that it was easy to confuse her with the character (particularly since Sookie seemed to track closely to the upbeat McCarthy who’d turn up in interviews). But if the series didn’t engage the full range of the comedic talents McCarthy honed as a member of the Groundlings, it allowed her to develop some dramatic chops to accompany them. Amy Sherman-Palladino’s series stood out for its fast-paced, witty banter, but it was at its best when that banter served as scaffolding for affecting stories driven by multilayered performances, and McCarthy could more than keep pace on both fronts.
McCarthy worked steadily in the years after Gilmore Girls ended its run, although not always that noticeably, appearing in the supporting cast of the Christina Applegate sitcom Samantha Who? while taking supporting roles in films like The Back-up Plan. Yet there’s an item deep in the McCarthy filmography that serves as a sign of things to come, even if no one noticed at the time. Given a small release in 2007, The Nines is to date the only feature directed by prolific screenwriter John August — and it serves a showcase for McCarthy’s abilities. McCarthy plays three parts, as do co-stars Ryan Reynolds and Hope Davis, and to explain why is to risk spoiling the movie. In short, McCarthy plays three different characters who exist across three different realities: in one, the no-nonsense PR rep of an actor under house arrest; in another, an actress (named Melissa McCarthy) who falls out with a showrunner friend when he recasts a TV role written for her; and in the third, the wife of a game designer. But the tricky film bends the realities into each other and McCarthy bends with them, reshaping her characters to fit the surroundings. She gets to be funny and cryptic and alluring in a film that challenged her to push beyond expectations set by her TV work. And though it would be a while before she’d get that sort of opportunity again, it’s clear watching the film now that there could be no holding her back. August had worked with McCarthy before. She’d starred in his 1998 short film “God” and in Go, which he scripted. Before most others, he had a better sense of what she was capable of playing, which, in short, was just about anything.
The rest of the world started to catch up with the Big Bang that led her to become one of the most in-demand stars in the world: the 2011 film Bridesmaids, directed by Paul Feig. There’s really no point in recapping McCarthy’s comic highlights in that film, but it might be worth recalling one scene in particular. Late in the movie, after providing the film’s broadest comedic moments (no mean feat in a movie that features characters defecating in the middle of downtown Chicago), McCarthy’s Megan forces a pep talk on the self-pitying protagonist played by Kristen Wiig, a process that involves fair amount of biting and slapping before segueing into a moving monologue about perseverance that’s as funny as any other moment while still giving the movie its heart. It’s a high-wire act played out on a couch and it’s pretty much impossible to imagine anyone else pulling it off.
Even more than the fearless abandon, it’s that ability to weave pathos and complexity into her performances that’s set McCarthy apart, an ability showcased in subsequent Feig team-ups like The Heat and Spy (and, to a lesser extent, their Ghostbusters remake, in which both humor and pathos get slathered in too much digital ectoplasm to register). It’s a skill that’s helped keep even questionable movies from falling apart. McCarthy has made three films with husband Ben Falcone via their On The Day production company — Tammy, The Boss, and Life of the Party — working within a conservative budget as a way to preserve creative control. Though all have been financially successful, none have been particularly well-received. But even if they don’t fully work, they’re often more compelling than they’re given credit for. Or at least stranger. Tammy, for instance, alternates big gags and sentiment in a way that wouldn’t work at all without McCarthy’s central performance. The Boss gives McCarthy an opportunity to go cartoonish in a way seldom seen outside of her great SNL appearances (and even that finds room for a change-of-heart story).
Which brings us to this spring’s Life of the Party and to 2018 which, until Can You Ever Forgive Me?, was not shaping up to be one of McCarthy’s more memorable years. In fact, it could have gone down as a year of dead ends rather than new beginnings. A gloss on Rodney Dangerfield’s Back to School, Life of the Party finds McCarthy playing a middle-aged mom who returns to her alma mater to finish her degree when her marriage unexpectedly ends — much to the surprise of her daughter, a senior at the same school. It’s an unfailingly pleasant, conflict-light comedy destined to play in endless cable reruns and it’s easy to see why McCarthy made it. It’s safe — the most tense scene involves her character’s nervousness at public speaking — and lets McCarthy to play against funny friends like Maya Rudolph, and, after a dowdy beginning, allows her to look glamorous, an opportunity not always afforded her onscreen. McCarthy could probably spend the rest of her career making movies like this and no one would complain all that much. But would anyone care?
Still, this would be preferable to more films like The Happytime Murders, the Muppets-but-dirty film-noir parody released to a hostile world this summer. McCarthy plays the human former partner of a puppet cop turned private eye, and it says a lot about the movie that its best scenes are those that allow McCarthy and Maya Rudolph to riff off one another. If Life of the Party suggested one possible future, The Happytime Murders suggested another: as a ringer making weak comedies better.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? suggests a third, more promising way forward, albeit one not that different from the best moments of McCarthy’s past. McCarthy’s one of the most skilled improvisers around, capable of turning every scene into comedy, but there’s never a suggestion that she’s champing against the reins of more overtly dramatic material. She sinks into the character. Then she sinks a little further, somehow holding the screen even as she plays a woman who’s defining character trait is a profound discomfort with the world, a quality that’s killed past relationships and closed off professional avenues. Lee drinks to excess, insults everyone around her, and steals toilet paper from the party of an agent (Jane Curtin) who’s only invited her out of politeness. Then she turns to crime, even ripping off a sweet bookstore owner with a crush on her (Dolly Wells).
Yet, through it all, McCarthy makes her feel understandable, if never particularly likable. That’s in part because Lee doesn’t care if she’s liked. Even her deepest friendship, with her partner-in-crime Jack (Richard E. Grant, who gets film’s most overtly funny moments but also its saddest scene), is built on opportunism and insults. That doesn’t make it any less real and, in the end, it makes what they have that much more touching, as the movie keeps inching toward tragedy. Yet even if it could never be mistaken for a comedy, and certainly not the sort of comedies McCarthy usually makes, that doesn’t mean Can You Ever Forgive Me? isn’t funny, either. There’s a tragicomic quality to Lee’s commitment to misanthropy, and a weird kind of honor to her remorselessness. Though the role is a departure in many ways, it sits nicely in a gallery alongside other extreme yet unmistakably human characters McCarthy’s created over the years. What makes Lee difficult and scary is also what makes her who she is. She’s, in other words, a Melissa McCarthy character. It’s only the surroundings that have changed, not the actress.