Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5. USA, 2018. Archer Gray, Fox Searchlight Pictures. Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty. Cinematography by Brandon Trost. Produced by Anne Carey, Amy Nauiokas, David Yarnell. Music by Nate Heller. Production Design by Stephen H. Carter. Costume Design by Arjun Bhasin. Film Editing by Anne McCabe. Golden Globe Awards 2018. Independent Spirit Awards 2018. Toronto International Film Festival 2018.
Broke, unemployed and her celebrated biographies published too long ago for anyone to remember, the irascible, anti-social Lee Israel (portrayed here by Melissa McCarthy) has hit rock bottom. Her only ray of hope is a proposed book on Fanny Brice that even her agent (a superb Jane Curtin) has no interest in, and it doesn’t help that she spends most of her work time at a bar where she encounters Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), whose prospects are as dire and with whom she becomes misery-loving frequent company. When Israel comes across an actual letter written by Brice in a book she is researching, she makes a few quick bucks selling it to a bookstore and inspiration strikes: with her in-depth knowledge of famous writers and their style of communication, she assembles a bunch of old typewriters and forges communications from the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker, selling them to stores around town for high sums of cash. The results pay her back rent and vet bills, but there’s the inevitable point at which the knowledgeable collectors who buy her works start to smell a rat. Based on a true story, this film celebrates the gleeful passion with which Israel pulled off this magnificent hoax (she sold approximately four hundred letters before being caught) while investigating the insecurity behind it. Her biographies are written without a personal bent for the same reason that her real life manner is so mean and unpleasant, because she keeps people at a distance out of fear, and the letters become her way of becoming a celebrated writer without ever being seen or known. The screenplay by Jeff Whitty and the always expert Nicole Holofcener richly captures both the necessity of Israel coming to terms with her need to stop hiding while also allowing her to pat herself on the back for her literary expertise (she ended her life saying that her forgeries were the work she was proudest of). McCarthy expertly captures the subject’s complications beautifully, giving a performance that avoids the manic delights of her perpetually verbal comic persona while still shining with the charisma that always makes her so bright on screen (which for a role that requires a courtroom monologue is not an easy feat). Grant matches her sparkle with a full-blooded performance whose details (gay, queeny, tragic) could feel like a throwback if it weren’t for the fact that this film is reveling in its throwback charm (set in the early nineties with nary a LED screen in sight), and he is performing the character with such unapologetic relish that his worst behaviour contributes to the fuzzy feeling of warm nostalgia.