Drawn from the true story of author and prolific forger Lee Israel, this often uncomfortably enjoyable character piece has a fine, even somewhat daring lead performance by Melissa McCarthy – yes, THAT Golden-Globe-nominee Melissa McCarthy.
In a role that might once have been filled by Julianne Moore (which would have made this quite a different movie), the frequently irksome Melissa is great as the fairly awful Lee, and there’s some dynamite chemistry between her and co-star Richard E. Grant (although it could have been Chris O’Dowd, which would have been nice but, again, not the same).
Directed by Marielle Heller in her second feature after The Diary of a Teenage Girl (another story of flawed characters experiencing terrible guilt) and drawn from scripters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel’s own confessional memoir, this opens in a grim New York back in 1991 (already ancient history!). McCarthy’s Lee loses an editing gig and is in desperate need of money as her biography of Estée Lauder hasn’t sold, and although her rent is way overdue and her cat Jersey is sick, she still, of course, finds the cash to drink.
When she meets Jack Hock (Grant), a fabulously promiscuous gay alcoholic with a delicious sense of humour, they become messy friends while Lee researches a biography of the not-quite-legendary Fanny Brice, something her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) says won’t sell. Broke and desperate, Lee finds a genuine letter written by Brice in a dusty library book, embellishes it using an old typewriter, and then sells it for good money.
This leads to her offering other fake correspondences to Anna (Dolly Wells), Alan Schmidt (Melissa’s offscreen husband Ben Falcone) and others, as she develops a virtual forging industry with letters supposedly written by Noel Coward, Dorothy Parker, Marlene Dietrich, Louise Brooks and more. We watch as she gets further and further into trouble, and she’s just about to start believing her own lies and delusions when the inevitable shakedown comes, and while she’s certainly to blame for the whole scary situation, we nevertheless feels sorry for her, no matter how dreadfully she behaves.
While Grant is lovely (he always is), this is most surprising due to McCarthy, who hasn’t been this good in about 10 years, ever since she suddenly, post-Bridesmaids, became one of the biggest stars in the world and made sure virtually every movie she toplined was dire. But she’s terrific here, so can we forgive her for Identity Thief, The Heat, Spy, The Boss, the Ghostbusters remake, Life of the Party and so many others?