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'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' review: Melissa McCarthy hits a career high

Melissa McCarthy  and Richard E. Grant in

Melissa McCarthy  and Richard E. Grant in  "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight/Mary Cybulski

CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME? (3 1/2 STARS)

PLOT A once-promising writer turns to forging letters from dead authors. Based on a true story.

CAST Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant

RATED R (language)

LENGTH 1:46

BOTTOM LINE McCarthy hits a career high in this funny-sad film about a talented miscreant.

Two beautiful losers come together in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” based on the true story of a once-promising author and a disreputable rake who turn to literary forgery to pay the bills. All right, maybe they're not so beautiful — she's a rageaholic, he's a homeless drug abuser — but that only makes them more endearing. In this adaptation of Lee Israel's 2008 memoir, it's them against the world. Even gutsier, it's them against New York City.

Melissa McCarthy plays Israel, whom we first meet as a grouchy copy editor at The New Yorker. She's drinking something on the rocks at her desk — like Clint Eastwood's crusty newspaper reporter in “True Crime,” she doesn't realize that era has passed — and gets fired. Only gradually do we realize that Israel was once a best-selling author of biographies. While her former agent (Jane Curtin) is throwing parties for literary swells in turtlenecks (it's the '90s), Israel is three months behind on rent for an apartment full of cat poop and flies.

Chain-drinking Scotch at a local bar, she meets Jack Hock, a gay Lothario with a Dickensian flair — ratty coat, tatty hat, an ascot against the cold. Hock (the great Richard E. Grant) proves excellent company for Israel, a fellow miscreant and enabler. They become fast friends and, later, partners in crime. When Israel discovers a hidden talent — writing letters in the “voices” of dead celebrities like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward — Hock proves a garrulous peddler to store owners who buy and sell such collectibles.

Directed by Marielle Heller (“Diary of a Teenage Girl”) and written by Nicole Holofcener with Jeff Whitty, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is a winning comedy-drama with just a touch of New York grit — a literary “Midnight Cowboy,” perhaps, with counterfeiting in place of prostitution. It also marks a career-high performance from McCarthy, seemingly born to play the role of this angry, awful, somehow empathetic misfit. (It's Anna Deavere Smith, as Israel's ex-girlfriend, who bluntly calls her “exhausting.”) Likewise, Grant delivers what may be a personal best as Hock, a lovable lowlife with an unstompable pride. McCarthy and Grant — who'd have thought it? Yet they're terrific together, a scuzzball Laurel and Hardy on the mean streets of Manhattan.

Israel died in 2014, after serving a light sentence for her misdeeds and then writing the acclaimed memoir that, it would seem, helped her further profit from her crime. Can we indeed ever forgive her? With a movie this entertaining, it's hard not to.

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