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Movie review: An honest look at a creative slip into crime

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant star in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," now showing at Zinema 2.

She used to be on the New York Times bestseller list. Now, Lee Israel is behind on her rent, her cat is sick, and she has a heavy case of alcoholism and writer's block. "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" traces the celeb biographer's stint into forging and selling letters from famous authors to make ends meet.

Based on her confessional memoir of the same name, the film is sublimely cast with Melissa McCarthy in the lead. With roles in "The Heat" and (an Oscar nod for) "Bridesmaids," it's a wonder to see her extend her range, punctuating hostility under her breath and in your face.

Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty pen Lee as well-spoken and lovably crass. McCarthy's comedic timing is sculpted to perfection as she trots along stealing toilet paper and shrimp to share with her cat.

Color comes with an old friend Jack, played by Richard E. Grant ("Gosford Park"). Their platonic chemistry is tops, as they grapple aging, loneliness and grifts with biting humor, radical tolerance and lots and lots of booze. (They somehow turn a scene with a bunch of cat turds under the bed into a tender high point.)

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?" is set in early-'90s Manhattan, and it feels authentically of the time with shots of the Brooklyn Bridge and the New York City Library. Cinematographer Brandon Trost ("The Disaster Artist") paints the town in gritty grays and earthy tones, striking classic Woody Allen chords.

It’s comforting seeing characters bask in the history of the printed page. Watching Lee scam other literary hounds — soft-spoken Anna (Dotty Wells) and sorta-shady Alan (McCarthy’s real-life husband, Ben Falcone) — is like feeling an itch you can’t scratch.

Director Marielle Heller plays it straight behind the camera, and it's only with McCarthy's permission that you see glimmers of feelings outside of disdain and disappointment. Music informs much with dots of optimistic piano and a brooding cello by composer Nate Heller, and old jazz tunes by Blossom Dearie and Patti Page.

Lee died in 2014, and the film pays homage to her steely disposition, her hidden softness.

In an early scene, Lee goes head to head with her agent, Marjorie (Jane Curtin). She's ripping into Tom Clancy, blaming everyone for her creative stagnation. "Write your book in your own voice like you've been wanting to," Marjorie says.

Lee answers with a dumbfounded look.

Any creative can relate to avoiding a core artistic expression — though not all turn to crime instead. Lee famously called her more than 400 doctored letters her best work, and while "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" never lets her off the hook, it captures this woman without sentimentality or allure — kind of like the author lived her life.

It's worth seeing.

Grade: B

"Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells

Director: Marielle Heller

Writers: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty

Time: 1:46

Rating: Rated R for language including some sexual references, and brief drug use

Now showing: Zinema 2

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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