Though she is highly likeable, Melissa McCarthy has had a rather hit or miss type career. Turns in Gilmore Girls, Bridesmaids and St. Vincent have come off really well while The Happytime Murders, The Boss and Tammy less so. I have always categorized her as the type of comedic actress whose career is based upon the throw loads at the wall and see what sticks kind of philosophy. Her latest film is a return to a dramatic role (not that there isn’t humour here) and it definitely sticks to the wall.
During the 70s and 80s writer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy – The Happytime Murders, Life of the Party) made her living writing somewhat successful biographies on such figures as Katherine Hepburn, Tallulah Bankhead and Estee Lauder. As her career advances, tastes change in the 90s and Lee’s type of book no longer sells. Something her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin – Coneheads, I Love You, Man) cannot seem to get through to her.
As a result, the heavy drinker is having trouble making ends meet financially. With her back up against the wall, Lee turns chance into a way to make some extra cash. A way that is most certainly not legal. Soon with the help of her only friend, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant – Gosford Park, Jackie), she is bringing in plenty of cash while trying to stay one step ahead of authorities.
That way is by selling forged letters that she writes claiming them to be the product of rather famous writers like Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. There are people/collectors who will spend quite a bit of money to own one of these letters. Lee uses that to her advantage. So much so that she has caught the attention of the FBI. But, once the money starts rolling in it is difficult to go back to the eviction notices and pocketing shrimp canapes from parties times.
Not a story that will get people invested in it. I knew nothing about Lee Israel before seeing the film. It does not scream out emotional investment. To get film goers interested in a story like this you have to work hard. There is not a ton of story here, so, rather it relies on the characters and performances by the small cast.
Plenty is asked of McCarthy in her latest role and she is totally up to the challenge. She must present an acerbic, rather unlikeable character and make us care about her. Lee is lonely, rude, funny, and insecure. Somehow in McCarthy’s hands we end up caring for Lee. At least feeling sorry for her rather than wanting her to be caught. Her range has to be large here. Shifting gears often without showing so on the surface. As opposed to her usually manic performances in comedic films, here her Lee is rather understated in demeanour. The result is a rather human middle aged curmudgeon as opposed to the caricature it could have been in lesser hands. No single dimension comedic character here for McCarthy.
A highlight of the film is the chemistry between McCarthy and Grant in their moments onscreen. Together they create my favourite moments of the film. Whether they are being funny, sarcastic, drunk or emotional. You just want to watch them bitch, drink and talk forever.
Visually director Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl) has made the world of the early 90s in Manhattan a character here. It is the part of New York City which we grew familiar with through shows like Seinfeld and several Woody Allen films. It is all brown and grey, rather blustery and filled with cement and brick buildings.