Boozy and bad-tempered, cranky author Lee Israel can’t interest publishers in her own work so she turns to literary forgery to make ends meet – knocking off fake letters by literary icons and selling them to collectors with help from her gay English drinking buddy Jack Hock. Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant make a terrific double act in this hilarious, unexpectedly poignant fact-based drama set in 1990s New York.
Melissa McCarthy plays things broadly straight for a change in this offbeat biopic of notorious literary forger Lee Israel, but thanks in large measure to her terrific double act with co-star Richard E Grant her performance here is every bit as funny as her rollicking turns in the raunchy comedies that made her name.
This time, however, the hilarity goes hand in hand with an unexpected poignancy. McCarthy’s Lee is a boozy and bad-tempered New York writer whose life and career is in a major slump when we first encounter her in the early 1990s. The author of books on such figures as actress Tallulah Bankhead and cosmetics tycoon Estée Lauder, she has seen her brand of celebrity biography fall out of favour. Now, her agent (a deliciously tart Jane Curtin) won’t return her calls, her beloved cat is sick and she can’t pay the vet bills, let alone her rent.
But she turns her fortunes around when she discovers there is a thriving market among collectors for the correspondence of witty 20th-century celebrities and realises she possesses the knack of knocking off fake letters by the likes of Dorothy Parker and Noel Coward. With help from her gay English drinking buddy Jack Hock (a hilariously louche, Oscar-nominated Grant) she soon starts cashing in on her talent. She can’t, however, keep suspicion at bay forever.
Working from a sharp script by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (adapted from Israel’s own memoir), director Marielle Heller turns this strange real-life tale into a thoroughly winning movie. Prickly enough to draw blood, the cranky, curmudgeonly Lee is far from likeable, but McCarthy brings out her vulnerability and has us rooting for her all the same.
Can You Ever Forgive Me? screens tonight at the Embankment Garden Cinema at 5.30pm and at the Cineworld Leicester Square at 6.15pm, and at the Embankment Garden Cinema on Saturday 20th October at 11.30am and at BFI Southbank on Sunday 21st October at 8.30pm, and goes on general release from Tusday 1st January 2019.