“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” falls into that bleak category of bio-pic drama that receives critical accolades without big distribution. As a limited release film, this one’s only available in the big cities to the east. Wait a few days, and streaming in some manner will surely arrive.

This film about a bookish middle-aged woman will give you the same warm feeling as sitting by the fire with a good book, but with a twist. Lee Israel’s tale is not a pretty one, but she’s laughing about that all the way to the bank. After a stint as a literary forger, Israel escaped jail time, wrote a book about her escapades, and then optioned it for a movie. Now here we are.

Israel (Melissa McCarthy) made a name for herself writing biographies about famous women. With an acerbic wit, a mean spirit, and frequent bouts with a bottle of Scotch, Israel finds herself living in expensive New York City with a shrinking bank balance. Her book agent (Jane Curtain) has little interest in securing her another advance since Israel refuses to play the game and promote her books.

As a last resort, Israel takes a framed autographed letter (one that’s hung on her wall for years) to a local bookseller. Much to her surprise, the bookseller pays her generously. Bank balance problem solved, and Israel notices.

With her great talent as a writer, Israel takes the next step and begins forging literary letters. She does her research, so the suddenly “discovered” letter fills in some murky gap in the famous person’s life. For authenticity, she purchases old typewriters and uses yellowed paper. Of course, everyone she forges has long since died, making the probability of being caught somewhat remote. Then she slips up and her buyers blacklist her.

To continue her forgery business, she enlists the help of her long-time bar buddy Jack Hock (Richaqrd E. Grant). Hock’s an affable Englishman with a great Oxford accent. It’s not long before he’s raking in the cash and splitting the take with Israel, who keeps those forgeries coming. Eventually, Hock will sing like bird to authorities, and the lucrative gig will be up.

McCarthy and Hock have great chemistry. His portrayal of Hock creates a nice foil to the no-nonsense, often abrupt manner that McCarthy plays Israel. McCarthy’s ability to shift from comedy to drama demonstrates her considerable talent. You won’t see one particle of the funny business that she brought to Saturday Night Live. 

If you like literary hi-jinx, don’t miss “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” That question’s attributed to Dorothy Parker, but I’m not sure if it’s real or fake. I’ll have to do some research.

Rated R for language including some sexual references and brief drug use

Marilyn Robitaille writes film reviews for the Empire-Tribune and Glen Rose Reporter.