Melissa McCarthy plays it straight and gets the role of her life in Can You Ever Forgive Me?

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      Starring Melissa McCarthy. Rated PG

      Melissa McCarthy plays it straight and gets the role of her life in Can You Ever Forgive Me?, named after the memoir of her real-life character: a caustic New York writer called Lee Israel, who finally found success by pretending to be famous people.

      Movies have always had a difficult time portraying the lives of writers. I mean, all that typing and shit? In this case, the typing—kind of—is the point, as Israel, who garnered attention as a show-business biographer in the 1980s, sees her prospects dry up at the start of the next decade. As her snarky literary agent (SNL great Jane Curtin) is forced to explain, Lee’s abrasive personality and refusal to play the book-promo game are much more serious problems than lack of talent or ideas.

      The irony is that Israel has chosen a purely commercial niche but wants to be treated like an artiste. This theme is subtly teased out by director Marielle Heller, who made the terrific Diary of a Teenage Girl. (She’s also helming the still-untitled movie with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers.) The witty script is from Nicole Holofcener (whose film The Land of Steady Habits is now on Netflix) and Broadway-musical veteran Jeff Whitty. And they find the right balance of dark comedy and underlying sympathy for a character who exhibits little of the slapstick confidence McCarthy is known for.

      Israel, who lives in a fly-specked Manhattan hovel with her sick cat, softens slightly when she starts hanging out with emblematically named Jack Hock, a genial hustler who gets by on the charm she clearly lacks. (This gives U.K. great Richard E. Grant one of his best parts since Withnail and I.) They’re both hard-drinking and gay—he actively so, while human contact is something she avoids, even after attracting the attention of a shy bookseller, played by Doll & Em’s endearing Dolly Wells. When she brings the seller some legit letters signed by Funny Girl Fanny Brice, Lee realizes there’s gold in them there oldies. That’s where the (antique) typewriters come in. If you’re going to forge correspondence from Dorothy Parker, Noël Coward, and the like, you don’t do it on an IBM Selectric.

      To describe more is to give away the downbeat fun. But it’s rare to see a mainstream effort let its scenes play out so organically, goosed along only by superb acting and a sharp jazz score that—like the movie itself—always manages to avoid the obvious notes.