" I can safely say at this point that we are lost. "
— Heather Donahue, The Blair Witch Project

MRQE Top Critic

Winsor McCay -- The Master Edition

A new DVD offers an opportunity to see films by a master of animation —Andrea Birgers (DVD review...)

Gertie the Dinosaur, born of Winsor McCay

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In this strong dramatic turn, Melissa McCarthy rebounds from the disastrous Happytime Murders with an Oscar-caliber performance.

The Desperate Writer

Ripping off the literary greats
Ripping off the literary greats

Lee Israel (McCarthy) is a miserable woman living a miserable life, working a miserable job and going home to a miserable apartment. At least her cat loves her.

After she loses her job, Lee’s misery escalates. She can’t come up with the $82 (or at least half of it) required to get the vet to see her sick cat. She’s months behind in rent for her bug-infested place. The 51-year-old author of a New York Times bestseller blames ageism; her rotten attitude, lack of social grace and a personality vacuum had nothing to do with her job loss. Oh no. Not at all.

In an act of desperation, Lee sells a personal, handwritten letter from Katherine Hepburn to help pay the bills. As serendipity would have it, she then stumbles on a letter from Fanny Brice while combing through a library book as part of her Brice biography project (a proposed book her disinterested agent assures her no one will read). Lee sneaks the letter out of the library and makes some more coin.

Lee realizes she’s on to something and she begins to craft her own letters, mimicking the style and tone of Dorothy Parker, Louise Brooks, Noel Coward, Brice and others. All told, her escapade in “elite collectible literary artifacts” extends out to some 400 forged letters before it all collapses around her.

The Penitent Writer

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (the title is pinched from a sign-off in letters from Dorothy Parker) is a showcase for Melissa McCarthy, dramatic actress. Given the rather abrasive character of Lee Israel, it’s a nice bridge from McCarthy’s typically foul-mouthed, larger-than-life characters to a role with considerable dramatic heft and a complete lack of vanity.

McCarthy’s characters are typically unhinged in an over-the-top fashion. Here, she’s unhinged in a totally grounded and realistic portrayal of a woman who’s lost the plot in her own life. Following in the footsteps of Jodie Foster in the criminally underrated Hotel Artemis, McCarthy peels away the glamor of her Hollywood persona, ditches the makeup and goes frumpy.

Lee Israel dodged subjecting herself to personal criticism by posing as others long-gone. All the while, her ego was still there, calculating the risks and seeking to extract some sort of creative justice on a world that’s been unfair to her. Her hubris leads to this line delivered by an angry ego, “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker.”

Lee is at turns sympathetic and frustrating. And she manages to find another lost soul to support her life of literary crime. Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant, Logan) is an equally egotistical loser, a drunk enduring the onset of AIDS while living as recklessly as ever. He’s the perfect — well, maybe a little dim — partner to further her forged fortune.

The Hanx Writer

Credit goes to Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl), in only her second feature as director, for keeping the pacing even and the tone balanced between wit and drama, focusing on the potential of Lee’s world — a circle of people who could be friends, colleagues, intimates and advocates — were it not for her betrayal of the most basic trust.

It’s a fun romp as Lee grows her skills in fraud. She builds a collection of old typewriters to replicate the precise impressions of typed missives and she learns the larger craft of document trickery — baking papers to age them, copying handwriting over her TV screen to precisely duplicate signatures.

It’s all part of a strong, smart effort that, oddly enough, begins with a bit of a literary misstep all its own. As the movie opens, the year is identified as 1991. And, quite specifically, it’s 3:30 in the morning. But never mind the month or day. So it’s 3:30 A.M. in 1991 New York City. Fine.

Let the story unfold.