February 21, 2019 – I thought I knew where this story was headed, mainly because I did not know it was based on a true story, not a made-up one. Thank god it is based on a true story. That makes it a lot less predictable, unless you know the true story in advance.
Melissa McCarthy (ďGhostbustersĒ) gives a great performance as the main character, writer Lee Israel, who falls on hard times after some earlier career successes writing biographies. Trying to make a living now as a copy editor, she is fired for drinking on the job, and for insulting her boss and everyone else around her. Lee is antisocial, but she does love her cat, Jersey.
Months behind on her rent, and needing money to pay Jersey's veterinary bill, Lee hits on a novel scheme to make money. She begins forging letters from famous dead people, such as NoŽl Coward, Dorothy Parker and Marlene Dietrich. She sells the forged letters to dealers who, in turn, sell them to collectors of memorabilia. She uses her writing and research skills to mimic the writing styles of many different writers, and chooses topics and details they would have known about.
She collects old typewriters to match those used by the people whose letters she is forging. She learns how to make modern kinds of paper look older. She learns which dealers to sell to and which kinds of forged letters will get the most cash. Operating in a legal gray area, she gets away with this for quite a while, but eventually the phony content of her one of her forged NoŽl Coward letters is spotted as a fake by someone who actually knew NoŽl Coward.
At this point, Lee, still unable to give up her forgeries, which she can no longer sell. She needs a front man, and begins working with the only friend she has, a charming fellow drunk, Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant of ďJackieĒ). Jack has a suitably flexible set of morals and the gift of gab. He does a pretty good job of selling Lee's forged letters.
Eventually, however, the dealers, and the FBI, get wise to this scheme as well. Lee eventually goes one step further with her scheme, stealing original documents from library collections, replacing the originals with forged copies, then selling the originals.
I could see where this was going, but then the reality of history took hold and the story took off in a different, more satisfying direction than I was expecting. Only in the closing credits did I find out that this is based on a true story. That is why the ending is so unexpected. I was very pleased by this.
This is one of the best films of the year, with great acting by Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant. This is largely a drama, with strong elements of dark humor. Lee relishes the fact that experts and authenticators are fooled by her writing, research and other forgery tricks, and she makes no excuses for her behavior. Kudos to Director Marielle Heller and writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty for creating such a compelling movie.
In this film, Lee Israel and Jack Hock come across as scoundrels that we have some sympathy for. They are crooks, but their victims are, for the most part, not entirely innocent either. Some dealers are not overly concerned with the authenticity of the memorabilia they sell. Not many people have much sympathy for the wealthy collectors of memorabilia, either. This film walks that narrow path between these sympathies very adroitly. This film rates a B+.
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