(Directed by Marielle Heller, 2018)
We were familiar with Ms. Heller’s work through that deceptively small film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and here, as there, she clearly is the Goddess of Small Things, able to turn an interior work into something a bit special.
The story is ‘sort-of-true.’ Worthy but down-and-out and written-out journeyman writer, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, who was in the terrific comedy Bridesmaids) has rent and bills past due, can’t keep a job because of poor interpersonal skills, can’t afford veterinary treatment for her cat, Jersey, has a drinking problem, and an agent (Jane Curtin, in a superb performance) who is as calculating as Bebe Glazer in “Frasier,” and as remote and uninterested as Withnail’s agent.
Lee’s forte is biography (which should have grounded her sufficiently in the value of prime-source documents, but let that pass). Near the end of her tether, she finds an old letter from Fanny Brice wedged in a book on the famous Funny Girl, adds a personal and salty flourish to it on an old typewriter, and discovers that the lucrative memorabilia market is slightly sloppy in matters of provenance. So begins her career as a forger, in which she is joined by unreliable partner, gadabout and and drinking buddy, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant).
This could have flopped, big time. After all, the story is wafer-thin and plays like a morality-tale free from moral restraint. But it succeeds, thanks to the sure but light directorial touch, and lovely performances, particularly by McCarthy and Grant. Grant is all louche charm – sleazy, boyish, transient, insouciant, soused and enthusiastically gay. McCarthy does great serious-comedic work as a frump and a grump with inner resources she had forgotten, and an awkwardness she is determined not to shed. The two make a fine pair of rogues and then, when all falls apart, a bittersweet brace of riffraff, up there (or down there) with Withnail & I or Ratso Rizzo and Joe Buck. We also liked “Towne” (the beloved cat), and the opportunity to re-visit Argosy Books (metaphorically).