Forger flick ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’ offers Melissa McCarthy at her best

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Directed by Marielle Heller

Starring Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells

Rated R

It should surprise no one that Melissa McCarthy gives a first-rate performance in "Can You Ever Forgive Me?," a relentlessly serious drama that is about as far removed from her familiar slapstick persona as possible.

That’s because she is such a wonderful, charismatic actor even in lowest-common denominator fluff, that it was only a matter of time before she found a part as worthy of her talents as, say, "Bridesmaids," for which she received an Oscar nomination.

In Lee Israel, the real-life author who in the 1990s forged hundreds of letters by renowned authors such as Dorothy Parker and Noël Coward, McCarthy offers one of her richest creations: a woman who simply refuses to conform to society’s rules, whether they’re those governing basic social niceties or the requirement that an author write books that readers actually want to read.

An adaptation of Israel’s memoir from director Marielle Heller ("The Diary of a Teenage Girl"), the movie follows Israel as she discovers her gift for a criminal enterprise, scamming New York bookshops into purchasing her forgeries with the assistance of fellow downcast author Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, as delightful as ever).

This is a true vintage New York writer’s movie in the best sense, with scenes in smoke-filled bars and crappy Upper West Side apartments (back when there was such a thing). It’s also a crime picture that doubles as a commentary on literary pretensions and specifically the question of what truly determines whether something has value, while it is rife with the conflicting feelings that come with discovering you’re really good at doing something really bad.

It is a lot of things, in other words, and could have spun off in many directions, but Heller keeps it consistently engaging. And she has McCarthy and Grant, who humanize this plight and show us the full scope of these sad and lonely people on a flawed search for happiness in a harsh world.