Melissa McCarthy and Richard E Grant together has to be the strangest cinematic pairing since Abbot and Costello met Frankenstein. That makes the entire appeal of this movie interplay between characters – including wondering what common ground performers from such different backgrounds and with such different strengths and experience can possibly find.
McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a true life writer in the early 90s who’s had some success but who’s style has fallen out of favour with current day readers and is falling on hard times.
When researching a biography of the Golden Age actress Fanny Brice she finds two letters Brice wrote, and when a book dealer contact offers her a decent amount of money for them, Lee hits upon an idea. There’s a market for letters by famous (dead) artist and writers, she just has to find it. And if she can’t find it she’ll make it, studying their penmanship and making up letters attributed to them which go for ever-more vast sums, eventually stealing originals from collections and museums and replacing them with her own forgeries, becoming a one woman fraud industry.
At the same time she falls in with Jack Hock (Grant), a gay bohemian con artist living with AIDS in a time when it was still a death sentence. When Lee’s wares are called into scrutiny because of how active a seller she is, it’s only natural that she enlists born talker Jack to be her fence, splitting the profits with him.
It can only end in one of several ways – greed, ineptitude because of their careless lifestyle (Lee is a functioning alcoholic, Jack not careful enough with his many partners and responsibilities) or the pair getting caught.
There’s no violence or threat, little real conflict and not even particularly high stakes apart from a possible conviction for forgery. Owing to the period it’s all a bit sombre and colourless with the dowdy backgrounds and darkened bars of Manhattan, so the magic is all in the details. And while it certainly won’t change your life, it’s a pleasure to see McCarthy dial it down and Grant dial it up, meeting in the middle and playing some great dialogue off each other.
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