As sharp-tongued, alcoholic misanthropes go, Lee Israel deserves her place in cinema’s most un-hateable pantheon. Israel, a freelance journalist, made a name for herself in the 1970s by writing about such similarly tough-minded women as Katharine Hepburn and Tallulah Bankhead . But by the 1990s, Israel’s usual work had evaporated, a descent not helped by her prickly demeanor and a spreading infotainment ethos demanding that writers develop personae as vivid as their subjects.
It’s at this low point that we meet Melissa McCarthy’s Lee in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” in which the actress brings her dowdiest, most disagreeable A-game to a caustically funny, improbably affecting enterprise. When she’s fired from the latest of a series of lobster-shift clerical jobs, Lee calls her agent (a sublimely deadpan Jane Curtin) to revive a long-gestating biography of Fanny Brice. Later, at a literary party, Lee steals toilet paper and a stranger’s coat before repairing to a local bar.
You’ve never seen Melissa McCarthy like this. And she’s not even the best thing about her new movie.
It’s at that corner watering hole that Lee meets Jack, a dashing but vaguely disreputable character who, when she asks what he does, answers with a cryptic, “This and that. Mostly that.” Portrayed by Richard E. Grant in a delectable mélange of catty observational wit and almost childlike guilelessness, Jack winds up being the perfect, arms-wide foil for Lee’s crabbed cynicism. And he winds up being a similarly appropriate henchman in the crime spree she embarks on, as an act of economic opportunism and, ultimately, creative defiance.
Based on the real-life Israel’s memoir, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” dramatizes one of the strangest true-crime stories of the late 20th century, one whose precise parameters are so devious and, in their own way, deeply romantic that synopsis wouldn’t be remotely fair. Suffice it to say that Lee ends up finding her second act and also her calling as someone smart enough to recognize greatness, but unable to get out of her own way. She also finds her tribe in the denizens of a world largely confined to secondhand bookstores, antiquarian fairs and rare-print galleries.
It’s that universe — and a 1980s New York when people still smoked in bars, did coke in bathrooms and typed on Smith Coronas — that comes to life so gratifyingly in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” which is directed by Marielle Heller from a tartly on-point script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. As she did in her revelatory debut, “The Diary of a Teenage Girl,” Heller exhibits a richly expressive sense of texture and atmosphere, capturing the hushed coziness of the shops that constitute Lee’s territory, as well as the sad cat-lady squalor of her own Upper West Side one-bedroom. As a valentine to a lost city and its most eccentric kooks, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is adamantly analog, in temperament and aesthetic. One can almost see the real Israel, who died in 2014, raising an enraged middle finger to a once-eclectic urban grid now colonized by generic big-box stores, obscene wealth and downcast human turtles hunched into handheld digital shells.
Not that the city was all fun and games back in the day. But somehow, the pleasure of inhabiting Lee’s environment isn’t compromised by the tragedies, big and small, that tug at and threaten to engulf her story, whether it’s the AIDS epidemic that is killing off all of Jack’s friends or her own most self-destructive impulses. Instead, the evanescence that hovers over “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” gives it a much-needed, wistful sense of warmth.
That affectionate nostalgia is underlined by a delicately moving supporting turn from the British actress Dolly Wells as a genteel retro-chic bookshop owner. But primarily, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is most memorable as a classic two-hander, with McCarthy and Grant sparking and riffing off each other like the musicians who can be heard on the film’s jazz-infused soundtrack.
In some ways, Lee is a stretch for McCarthy, who’s best known for such broad comedies as “Bridesmaids” and its successors. She’s more muted and layered here, but Lee still resides squarely in the actress’s wheelhouse as a woman unburdened by conventional notions of femininity and politesse. As the extravagantly un-pin-downable Jack, Grant gives her a fabulous co-star to play against or lean into, as the characters’ mercurial relationship demands. Together, he and McCarthy give spiky, sympathetic life to the thwarted promise of so many New York misfits. Convinced that they’re one in a million, they forget that, just footsteps away, there are at least eight other people just like them.
R. At area theaters. Contains coarse language, including some sexual references, and brief drug use. 106 minutes.