Melissa McCarthy is generally cast in comedies that are even less demanding for her than they are for their audiences – it is the plight of the size-18 woman. But she is a better-than-average actress and in this bleak but endearing essay on fame and celebrity she shines as the irascible, alcoholic writer Lee Israel. Working on a biography of Fanny Brice, the vaudeville performer, but unable to procure an advance from her publisher, she becomes increasingly bitter and desperate. When she finds a letter from Brice while researching her subject, Lee steals it from the library and sells it to Anna (Dolly Wells), a collector and bookshop owner. Months behind in the rent and with a New York winter setting in, the penny drops that she might make easy money with forged correspondences attributed to the likes of Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. Enter Jack Hock (Richard E Grant), a hanger-on who has fallen off the A-list of Manhattan’s soirée set. Together, the cat-loving lesbian and gay Englishman form an improbable, scamming partnership of mutual contempt for the society that has shunned them. By all accounts, Israel was a difficult, not to say nasty, person but McCarthy’s intimate portrayal finds deep sadness in a person whose assertiveness (she pays out big time on Tom Clancy) is a veneer that hides her lack of confidence – her mea culpa in the court scene is heartbreaking. Grant’s Hock, with more than just a hint of Withnail about him, is on his uppers and only too aware that his debauchery is beginning to take its toll – ‘my hair is falling out!’ – but he is forever on the lookout for the main chance. The pair are fabulous, eking out laughs from the driest lines, but they never go anywhere near what would have been a coy loving relationship. That opportunity is presented to Lee by Anna, and the younger acolyte’s shy overtures are crucial in maintaining the hopefulness that you feel for Lee throughout. One of the year’s best.
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