Lee Israel has a problem.
At one point in her life, she was a successful author, writing biographies of famous women like the actress Tallulah Bankhead. She was even on the New York Times Bestseller list.
But that was years ago. Now, she can’t find work and is behind on her rent. The only friend she has is her ailing cat, and nobody will return her phone calls. As far as Lee is concerned, the fact she is now living in poverty and unemployed is a disgrace.
Her longtime agent, though, is less confused about why Lee has been snubbed by the literary world–just because she wrote a bestseller doesn’t mean she’s famous, her proposed new book subject is unmarketable, and Lee herself is just thoroughly unpleasant to deal with. Nobody wants to work with her.
Her agent advises her to seek a different line of work. And that’s just what Lee does. She starts forging letters from famous, deceased authors and selling them to collectors and antique dealers. Needless to say, complications ensue.
This movie, starring Melissa McCarthy as Israel and Richard E. Grant as Jack, her spacey friend and eventual partner-in-crime, is an odd one.
It’s a crime movie but with fairly low stakes. There are no shoot-outs or high-stakes heists, and the crime spree is like something out of an Antiques Roadshow episode gone horribly wrong. It’s also an unusually literary crime spree. Israel is impersonating the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. If those names mean nothing to you, it might be hard to follow the action.
Nonetheless, it’s a riveting movie precisely for those reasons!
Another thing that intrigued me about the movie is it makes no effort to make you like Lee. She really is not a likable character, though she often is a very pathetic one. Nevertheless, she is an interesting one.
Her odd-couple friendship with Jack–who is more charismatic but is also a lot less bright–is weirdly entertaining. They’re both oddballs with no more friends, and even though much of their friendship is predicated on mutual bitterness and alcoholism and shared criminal activity, it’s at times kind of heartwarming. Ultimately, this movie is just as much an examination of loneliness and friendship as it is of literary forgery.
I’ve seen McCarthy in other movies, and though I found her an engaging performer, she rarely seemed like she was acting rather than relying on a persona. I was pleasantly surprised how much she disappeared into the role of Lee Israel. When she’s on the screen, I don’t think, “Oh that’s Melissa McCarthy.” She’s Lee Israel. Grant’s turn as Jack is less surprising–charming but unbalanced rogues is a specialty of his–but they both do great work in this movie.
If you like unusual true crime stories, with no blood, or enjoy offbeat literary history, definitely give this movie a try.
Did you enjoy Can You Ever Forgive Me? What’s your favorite book-related true crime story? What have you been watching lately? Tell us in the comments! As always, please follow this link to our online library catalog to find more information on any of these items or to place holds.