with Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant,
When Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) finds herself down on her luck, unable to pay for her beloved cat’s health care, or even the rent for her apartment, she comes upon a letter from Fanny Brice inside a library book. Knowing the value of original manuscripts, she takes the letter and sells it, and so embarks on a life of crime. She begins selling stolen letters by the literary giants.
In her alcoholic wanderings, Israel finds an accomplice who has an even better idea, borrowed from his shoplifting escapades in drug stores. Leave the original toothpaste box there, but just remove the contents, and replace with your used up tube. So Israel who is used to showing her credentials as a writer of biographies, visits research libraries where the original documents are, and replaces them with her hand crafted forgeries.
Though it is illegal, was there ever a more inventive crime, as Israel begins imitating the style of famous writers, finding typewriters that are the same models as used by Dorothy Parker, et al, and composing the letter contents herself, Even when she is found out, the purchasers of the false letters admire her writing style. How much more interesting to sell letters with creative content than to rely on some boring exchange between William Faulkner and his accountant.
In this movie, based on the nonfiction account by Israel, her accomplice, Jack (Richard E. Grant), is much more pleasant company. He has charm, and an outsize personality. Compared to the curmudgeonly author, Jack exudes a winning personality. As Israel’s agent (Jane Curtin) suggests to her, in order for her fix her situation she needs to do three things. First, be more pleasant. Say please and thank you. Act as if you are glad to see people when you walk in a room. Second, stop drinking. Three, find another line of work.
We never do get to hear the author say thank you no matter how many kindnesses are thrown her way. Melissa McCarthy plays the part with a suitable lack of charm which can wear on the viewer. Richard E. Grant as Jack has an easier time of it, but the real standouts of the movie are the dealers eager to receive such plummy manuscripts. Included in this group is Ben Falcone as Alan Schmidt, a dealer Lee Israel is warned about, as well she might have, and Dolly Wells as Anna, a lonely book dealer with a crush on Lee, who may have ambitions to be a writer herself. I also appreciated the sudden appearance of Anna Deveare Smith as Israel’s ex girlfriend who tells Israel off. By then I think I was ready to tell her off myself.
Even though there is a dour, sour tone to the story, two things lift it up. One is the author’s relationship with her cat. This is something we have all probably seen, a person unable to relate to other people but who is completely won over by animals. There is a communication that takes place between an animal and a human that does not need words, and so avoids misunderstandings.
There is also a winning quality to the setting. New York in the 1990s, just after the AIDS epidemic, before everyone was connected to the internet and their cell phones, seems so innocent and grungy yet glamorous. And Melissa McCarthy does convince you that even though Lee Israel is a creep, she has a talent for imitating people she loved, in words, as a writer. For book lovers, and New Yorkers who love to wander these book stores and manuscript show rooms, the movie has enormous appeal. It doesn’t hurt that the spirit of Dorothy Parker hovers over the whole enterprise. Her phrase became the title of the movie.