“CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME?” — 3 stars — Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Ben Falcone; R (language, including some sexual references, and brief drug use); in general release

Sometimes you have to go to extremes to get past a severe case of writer’s block.

Based on Lee Israel’s memoir of the same name, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” recounts the real-life story of the author’s adventures in literary forgery.

We meet Lee in the 1980s as she’s just about to get fired from her day job. She’s seen enough literary success writing celebrity biographies to have an agent, but her caustic, profane character has burned so many bridges that her agent (Jane Curtin) won’t take her calls.

She’s also three months behind on her rent and an alcoholic, living with a 12-year-old cat in a Manhattan apartment so foul the exterminator refuses to enter it until she does some cleaning.

Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel and Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?" | Mary Cybulski, Twentieth Century Fox

Two encounters change the course of her life. In a seedy Manhattan bar she meets a shadowy British wraith named Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), best known around town for his freewheeling sexual behavior and for once getting so drunk at a party he urinated in a closet. They strike up a friendship and have a great time wallowing in each other’s misery.

Around the same time, while stubbornly researching a biography her agent has already rejected, Lee sells some old historic letters that net her enough cold hard cash to pay a few bills. More importantly — and tragically — she discovers that with a little creative enhancement, such items will get her more money from the collectors.

Thanks to a volatile combination of desperation, enabling influence from Hock and bruised ego — Lee rages that Tom Clancy gets multimillion-dollar advances for what she dismisses as right-wing male fantasy — a little creative enhancement soon blossoms to outright forgery. Before long, she has set up a cottage industry fabricating “long lost” correspondence from famous authors like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker.

Dolly Wells as Anna and Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
Dolly Wells as Anna and Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?" | Mary Cybulski, Twentieth Century Fox

As Lee goes from collector to collector, director Marielle Heller takes us on a tour of musty old Manhattan bookstores, stuffed floor to ceiling with the known and unknown work of Lee’s colleagues. The dim, yellowed lighting creates an old and bleak world, and as we get whiffs of an FBI investigation, we know things are probably going to end badly. The only question is how much damage will be done, and to who.

McCarthy offers an excellent performance as Lee, tempering her usual over-the-top comedic style while retaining her wit, and burying herself in a frumpy delivery that is just sympathetic enough to pity. She perfectly captures Lee’s inner wrestle with guilt, pride and righteous indignation, particularly when she develops romantic feelings for one of the bookshop owners (Dolly Wells) she is exploiting.

As Lee’s literal partner in crime, Grant is equally engaging — a kind of evil foil of “Seinfeld’s” Cosmo Kramer — one of those cryptic, charming characters whose means of existence seems a mystery.

Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock and Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
Richard E. Grant as Jack Hock and Melissa McCarthy as Lee Israel in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?" | Mary Cybulski, Twentieth Century Fox

Lee’s mouth is the primary source of “Can You Ever Forgive Me’s?” humor, but it also delivers the film's R rating, though the intermittent profanity comes with some depiction of drug use and mostly implied sexual content (including a quick shot of some male nudity).

The title might be “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” but director Marielle Heller celebrates her antihero in a way that suggests at least a hint of sarcasm in the question. All told, Lee reportedly forged over 400 documents, some of which are supposedly still in circulation. Collectors, be warned.

Rating explained: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" draws its rating from intermittent R-rated profanity, as well as some drug use, implied sexual content and brief male nudity; running time: 106 minutes.