By Jeff Morris (Cincinnati, OH)
This movie was good, but it was not great. Perhaps the biggest strength of this movie lies in its ability to allow the viewer to empathize with the main character in the film, Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy). She is introduced to us as an alcoholic struggling writer from the opening scene of the film. Israel is working late in a publishing company on some papers with a drink beside her. She starts cussing at coworkers who yell at her over the cubicle walls about her drinking. Her cussing gains steam until she turns around to see that her boss standing there. She loses her job and we follow her home. Her cat is sick, and she needs to take the cat to the vet but she doesn’t have the money to pay off her past due balance. She goes home, and we learn that she is three months behind on her rent. We already know that she has lost her job. We already know that she doesn’t work well with others. We feel the hopelessness that she feels as she tries to figure out how to get by in life.
The next scene has Israel visiting her agent. We learn that at one time, Lee Israel was a biographer who had a book on the New York Times bestseller list. The agent tells her that there really isn’t anything for her and there are no advances on books in her immediate future. In order to get by, she decides to sell her prized possession, a letter that a famous person once wrote to her. Still short on money, she comes upon a couple of letters from a famous vaudeville actress in a library, which she takes and tries to sell. When she is told that the first letter won’t get her much money because it isn’t personal enough, she adds a post script to the second letter which increases the selling price of the letter immensely.
The remainder of the film details her life of crime as she forges letters from famous literary people. This storyline keeps the viewer enthralled throughout the movie, but there is nothing really special or groundbreaking about the storyline itself. On this level, it is just another story about a person down on their luck turning to crime in order to get by. What sets this movie apart from the myriad other films that do this is how the character of Lee Israel herself is presented.
As the film progresses, the depth of her character deepens and only becomes more interesting. There is the relationship that she shares with her cat, at first the only other living thing that she cares about. There is a friendship that she strikes up with a gay man named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) which we experience from its inception to its end. There are her struggles with her own writing and her struggles with coming up with the book that she is ultimately supposed to write. There is depth to her character which help us to care and empathize with her throughout the entirety of the film.
Overall, there is nothing particularly groundbreaking about this film. In 5 years, it is my guess that this film will be largely forgotten. This being said though, the film is solid—both well-acted and well written.
Jack Hock: That’s me. The renegade, the rebel. Jack Hock, big c**k.
Lee Israel: I’m sure it’ll come back to me. How’s old life been treating you?
Jack Hock: I can honestly boast that I’m banned from Crosby Street Booksellers. I’m banned from Duane Reade. All of them. I have a little shoplifting problem. Well, it’s all in the past, but for some reason, I have a very memorable mug. And now I have to take a bus just to buy shampoo and aspirin and stuff. I’m joking. Duane Reade’s not the only rodeo in town.
Bookstore Employee: [referring to the books] Just these, I don’t want the others.
Lee Israel: Come on, man. I schlepped these all the way here.
Bookstore Employee: There’s people waiting.
Lee Israel: You know, you don’t have to be so disrespectful. You have actually carried my books here.
Bookstore Employee: And you are?
Lee Israel: Lee Israel.
Bookstore Employee: Oh, we have copies of your latest work right over there.
[Lee turns and sees her book on display with a massive 75% discount sign on it]
Lee Israel: Oh, God. Give me a f***ing break, please.
Marjorie: Well, clearly that’s not going to happen. Or you can take the time to go out and make a name for yourself. And then maybe, maybe, I can get you paid for your work again.
Lee Israel: And how is it that I’m supposed to do that, Marjorie? I’m a fifty-one year-old woman who likes cats better than people. Not exactly hot and sexy, as you like to say.
Marjorie: Write your book in your own voice. Well, you’ve been threatening to do it for ten years.
Lee Israel: I’d love to, Marjorie. Except that I have bills to pay, and not everybody has an ex-husband who left them a Classic Six on the Park!
Marjorie: You can be an a**hole when you’re famous, but as an unknown, you can’t be such a b**ch, Lee. Nobody is going to pay for the writer Lee Israel right now. My suggestion to you is you go out there and you find another way to make a living.
Lee Israel: I’m months behind in my rent and my cat is sick.
Jack Hock: It’s four in the afternoon and you’re drunk!
Lee Israel: I’m hardly drunk.
Jack Hock: [to the barman] Craigy, top her up.
Lee Israel: [after forging a letter to sell at a bookstore] I’ve recently found this delightful signed letter.
Book Dealer #1: Fanny Brice, one of my favorites. I could give you seventy-five.
Lee Israel: Oh.
Book Dealer #1: I could give more for better content. It’s a bit bland is all.
[Lee goes back to the same dealer after forging another letter with more content in it]
Book Dealer #1: Yeah, I can get a lot more with this one. I mean the “P.S.” makes it priceless.
Lee Israel: I have figured out a way to pay my bills without shoveling s**t, and it is a good feeling.
Jack Hock: Well, chin-chin. You going to tell me how?
Lee Israel: No. You’d be too scandalized.
Jack Hock: Oh, my! You clearly don’t know me very well.
Lee Israel: Some things are just better kept to oneself, even if they are brilliant.
Jack Hock: Come on. Spill the beans.
Lee Israel: Can you keep a secret?
Jack Hock: I have no one to tell. All my friends are dead.
Lee Israel: Quite by accident, I find myself in a rather criminal position.
Jack Hock: I can’t fathom what criminal activity you could possibly involve in, except a crime of fashion, of course.
Lee Israel: I’m embellishing documents, if you will.
Jack Hock: Are you forging checks?
Lee Israel: No. Literary letters by prominent writers.
Jack Hock: Not checks, not money, just letters?
Lee Israel: You’re not understanding the world of elite collectible, literary artifacts.
Jack Hock: I suppose not. But how thrilling to be forging pieces of paper that go where? Libraries?
Lee Israel: No, I am selling to collectors.
Jack Hock: [referring to the forged letter] How much are you getting for them?
Lee Israel: I don’t know why I told you. It’s a waste of a secret. I should have gone out there and gotten a rock and told the rock, because I’d get a better response.
Jack Hock: Who else have you told about this?
Lee Israel: You’re not the only one without friends.
Lounge Singer: This next song goes out to all the agoraphobic junkies who couldn’t be here tonight.
Book Dealer #1: [referring to one of Lee’s forged letters] I love his writing.
Lee Israel: Particularly clever, don’t you think?
Book Dealer #1: A caustic wit.
Lee Israel: Caustic wit is my religion.
Book Dealer #2: This is quite something. These are wonderful.
Lee Israel: I thought so too.
Book Dealer #2: Name your price.
Lee Israel: [to Jack, referring to one of her forged letters] You are looking at one month’s rent.
Jack Hock: [to Lee] What are we going to do? Gamble? Shop? Drink?
Book Dealer #2: [listening to Lee’s answering machine] Miss Israel, I have a couple of questions regarding the Latin letter I purchased
Jack Hock: Oh, God.
Lee Israel: What seems to be the problem?
Book Dealer #2: People are on alert. Your name’s been put on the list.
Lee Israel: A list?
Lee Israel: They’re literary treasures, one of a kind! It’s my writing!
Jack Hock: You’re impersonating other people. Nobody’s buying Lee Israel letters.
Book Dealer #1: There have been some forgeries going around.
Jack Hock: Do you think it’s real?
Book Dealer #1: Look’s that way.
Jack Hock: Good.
Lee Israel: You’re stealing from me?
Jack Hock: Come on.
Lee Israel: [to Jack] Get out of my house!
Lee Israel: I was supposed to be something more than this.
Lawyer: We’re probably looking at some time in behind bars.
Lee Israel: What?
Lee Israel: I can’t say that I regret any of my actions. In many ways this has been the best time of my life.
Lee Israel: How have you gotten by as long as you have?
Jack Hock: Do not underestimate sparkly blue eyes and a little bit of street smarts. They go a long way in this city. Although I may have stretched my limits recently.
Lee Israel: Yeah, but who did you want to be? I mean, what was the actual plan?
Jack Hock: I honestly don’t know what to say. I imagined I’d figure it out as I went along, and for the most part, I have. I certainly have no regrets.
Lee Israel: That can’t be true.
Jack Hock: Oh. You mean, why don’t I have some brilliant talent for copying like you do?
Lee Israel: Is that what you think I’m doing? You think I’m copying?
Jack Hock: Mm-hmm.
Lee Israel: I’ll have you know, I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.
Jack Hock: Oh, I’ll drink to that.
Jack Hock: You’re a horrid c**t, Lee.
Lee Israel: You too, Jack.