One of the best of the year, powered by Melissa McCarthy’s misanthropic turn as a struggling biographer in the leanest of times. Unemployed, unpublishable and unliked, McCarthy (playing writer Lee Israel) hits upon a scheme to forge letters from the ranks of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker and soon, her money woes are over. The endeavor also fills an artistic void. She takes pride in her turns of a phrase and bon mots, her work put in the mouths of giants, and she is invigorated. It all goes bad, as it must, but it is eventually to the good.
I can’t say enough about McCarthy. She inhabits the skin of Israel, with a vicious self-protective quality and a reflexive meanness. Yet you invest in her. Her bitter exchanges with her agent and attorney are both hilarious and poignant.
There is good in her, and a hell of a lot of hurt, both of which are unearthed by her chance friendship with an elegant scammer and libertine, Richard E. Grant. McCarthy and Grant were rightfully nominated for Oscars and it is a joy to watch him match McCarthy’s desire to be left alone with an insistence that they will be friends. Their hi-jinx and commiseration are the heart of the film.
I was blown away by the fact that this is director Marielle Heller’s first major feature. It felt like the work of an old hand, steady, confident and mature. The movie skips with ease but pauses for moments of true beauty and consideration.
This is an elegant movie, folding how much people need each other into a very funny, well-told story.