Tired of gauzy New York stories about the rich and famous? Here’s one as real as the dead flies on our protagonist’s pillow. Based on the memoir of the same name, this film explores the second life a once-bestselling biographer invents so she can pay the bills. Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) is a solitary woman with scathing wit and outdated interests. She’s fired from her rat-race job, her agent (Jane Curtin) cold-shoulders her, she’s behind on her rent, the vet won’t even look at her sick cat till she pays at least half of what she already owes. She’s hit the end of the line.
In a bar she meets Jack Hock (Richard Grant), a gay Englishman with a similarly jaundiced outlook, and they become guarded friends. Doing research for a biography, in the NY Public Library stacks she discovers two letters by the author tucked inside a book. She sells them to a bookstore – the owner, Anna (Dolly Wells), tells her they would be worth more if they weren’t so bland. A light glimmers on. Lee has a typewriter that matches the font of a letter by Noel Coward. Retyping his missive and adding a witty postscript, she peddles the embellished version for hundreds of dollars, and she’s in business.
Without giving away the show, I’ll tell you that this movie, for all its sardonic laughs, casts a glare on the lives of people whose successes are behind them, while bills and expectations pile up relentlessly. It’s easy to sympathize with a character who, in the grand scheme of things, does something pretty harmless to sustain herself in the face of diminished opportunities. It's also a story about people who find refuge in solitude.
Heller, and scriptwriters Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty, have crafted a tale Dorothy Parker, one of the writers whose letters Israel forged, would appreciate. This film makes keen observations about the shallowing of our culture – not only Jack, an Englishman, never heard of Parker, but the young printer who provides Israel a batch of Parker stationery hasn’t either. The forger can hide in plain sight. And we get a look at the subculture of memorabilia peddlers, some more scrupulous than others. Israel’s crime is small-scale compared to theirs – at least her role was creative.