Adapted from the true life story of biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) who amidst her financial struggles as a struggling writer and an impossible employee, stumbled upon the lucrative trade of selling letters by famous authors. Strapped for cash and a very ill cat, Lee tries her hand at mimicking the authors and forging her own creative licence in creating fake letters and selling them on to book stores in New York for a hefty fee. Mastering her craft as a forger and imitator, Lee makes a small killing that sees her turn her life around for the better, financially and socially. Striking up a friendship with socialite Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who eventually becomes illicit in her affairs after news spreads that there are fake letters being sold. The walls begin to close in when her game is rumbled.
Adaptations often pose the tricky affair of paying homage to the authenticity of the story or allowing for creative licence to create an interesting cinematic vision. Director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl, Casual) has decided to go with the latter and the result is a rather tepid affair. Lee Israel and her story seem interesting as a bard, but as a screen adaptation you’re left scratching with what Heller is looking to achieve? Lee Israel has some interesting quirks as a skin flint hermit with a caustic tongue but is hardly a remarkable character to pin a whole film upon. And her exploits that made her truly infamous feel more interesting to the New York literary clique. The ultimate talking point of the film is Melissa McCarthy’s performance, going against her usual slapstick comedy role that’s largely made her the success that she is. She does pull it off and convinces that she can offer more versatility and at times you might forget that you are watching Melissa McCarthy so she can hold her head high. Richard E. Grant will also garner a few plaudits with this being one of his better performances of late. But unlike Melissa McCarthy, his role feels less of a challenge, playing the lively, loud camp Jack Hock, it’s easy meat for someone like him.
Perhaps like Lee Israel who lacked the bravery to be put her creativity on the line as an author, is reciprocated in this screen adaptation too keen to find comfort in using cliches than sticking it’s neck out.