From 1991 to 1993 celebrity biographer Lee Israel forged more than 400 literary letters, attributing her own bon mots to the likes of Noël Coward, Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker. She sold these, along with bona fide specimens she smuggled out of library and university archives, to appreciative booksellers and dealers who then resold them to collectors. Two of Israel's fakes even found their way into the first edition of “The Letters of Noël Coward,” published by Alfred A. Knopf in 2007. With this publication, Israel's career, needless to say, had come full circle.
For her second feature film, director Marielle Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) took over production from writer/director Nicole Holofcener (Lovely & Amazing, Enough Said), who rewrote Jeff Whitty's script based on Israel's 2008 autobiography. While it's tempting to wonder what Holofcener's version, starring Julianne Moore and Chris O'Dowd, would have been like, irreconcilable "creative differences" with the former conspired to hand Melissa McCarthy a role that's truly worthy of her full dramatic range.
Heller offers a magical look back at New York and the fringes of its publishing world a full decade before the likes of Gawker put its navel-gazing online, and McCarthy's portrayal of Israel fits right in. She's sharp, well-read and much too scruffy and irreverent for polite society, embodied by her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin), who answers Israel's calls only when she impersonates Nora Ephron—another great period detail—on the other end.
McCarthy's portrayal of Israel is as ribald as some of the characters for which she has become well known. Yet, she's grounded in reality—an important distinction. She's still just as foul-mouthed, but her talent in stringing together descriptive adjectives and nouns in surprising combinations isn't the only thing about her. For instance, Israel has a genuine affection for favorite gay dive bar, vaudevillian Fanny Brice and her sick cat, whose vet bills spur her crimes. In other words, there are things to know and like about her; it's just that she doesn't seem to like herself all that much.
This psychological perspective isn't all that unusual. There have been plenty of movies starring cranky misanthropes, but they're men (Jack Nicholson has made a late-stage career out of playing them) who find redemption through a younger woman. Israel's foil isn't another woman, though there is both an ex-girlfriend (Anna Deavere Smith) and an ill-fated love interest (Dolly Wells), but another moth-eaten alcoholic misfit, Jack, played mischievously by Richard E. Grant.
The two inhabit the tatty interiors of a Manhattan not yet completely overtaken by shiny corporations, finding joy in mutual animus and bottles of whiskey. It's impossible to resist their chemistry or the pull of nostalgia one can feel for book-filled apartments. So, when Heller, in the final scene between the two, brings the camera in for too many closeups, making it a surprisingly standard bittersweet ending, you must forgive her.