If you’re asking for forgiveness, Melissa, you’ve got it. Not that I really believe you have anything to be sorry for. The Happytime Murders was a misfire, but hardly your fault, and I admire any attempt to do something different.
With this movie, both Melissa McCarthy and the character she plays are trying something different. McCarthy is trying on a more dramatic role, and though Lee Israel has a teriffic wit, she’s got no slapstick about her at all. McCarthy only has her own skin to live in, face naked save for an inept smear of lipstick on only the most special of occasions (ie, when asking for money), hair constantly overdue for its next dye job, frumpy clothes in various shades of poop. But it’s Israel’s personality that poses the real problem. She’s abrasive and reclusive and just doesn’t really know how to exist among people, so she’s basically stopped trying. It’s just her and her cat – a daunting thought when it’s just her and a blank page. A once-celebrated writer of biographies, her agent nowadays can’t get so much as a $10 advance for a book on Fanny Brice that nobody wants.
Living in semi-squalor, Lee finds there’s good money selling literary mementos from great authors. Is it her fault that better content fetches higher prices? Isn’t it just good business sense to exploit her natural gift for writing and put it to use making money again?
Crime pays, for a while. And then the FBI gets curious about all the fraud and forgery and whatnot.
I love this script. McCarthy’s very first line earns a laugh out loud, and the script continues to reflect Lee’s caustic humour throughout. And McCarthy is just brilliant in the role, aggressively unpersonable, but also sympathetic. There’s a whole framework of supporting cast to admire too, particularly Jane Curtin, Anna Deavere Smith, and Marc Evan Jackson.
This isn’t just a film about forging letters, it’s about loneliness, and friendship, and purpose. It’s hard to say which Lee needs more – human connection or the sense that she is creatively fulfilled. Of course, when you’re crediting your best work to someone else, it’s plagiary of the heart and perhaps this is what hurts her most in the end. Lee Israel is not anyone’s idea of a hero, but her flaws are all-too-human, and it’s fascinating to slide down the rabbit hole with her.