OF all the excuses for embarking on a life of crime, jealousy of Tom Clancy has not often, if ever, been cited. But according to Marielle Heller’s wildly enjoyable comedy drama, envy of another writer’s multi-million dollar advance was what tipped biographer Lee Israel over the law-abiding edge.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?, adapted from Israel’s memoir, presents at once a terrifying and seductive view of the writer’s life. Israel (Melissa McCarthy), is 51, behind with the rent, and suffering from writer’s block. She has just been fired from another temp job she hates, she’s battling a drinking problem, and, oh yes, her beloved cat, the one she likes more than people, is sick. At least the cat wants her around, unlike her agent (Jane Curtin), who advises her to stop being a horror.

One afternoon, Israel is in a bar drowning sorrows like kittens when in walks Jack Hawk (Richard E Grant). Recognising Israel from a long ago party, the writer and the small-time hustler are soon firm friends, as much as she can be anyone’s pal.

Down to her last few dollars, Israel sells a letter she once received from Katharine Hepburn. Then, in the course of her research for a book on Fanny Brice, she finds a letter and sells it for even more cash. Quicker than you can say “liar, liar, pants on fire” she has bought a batch of old typewriters, ordered headed paper, and the money is flowing in. The world of literary memorabilia turns out to be a lucrative one, especially if you can write well enough to add a little embellishment here and there.

Screenwriters Nicole Holofcener (Enough Said) and Jeff Whitty are up for Oscars alongside McCarthy and Grant. No arguments here. McCarthy, let loose on a dramatic role, is astonishingly good as the barbed, damaged Israel, a woman who has never been brave enough to get close to anyone. The scene of her on a rare visit to a nightclub, enjoying the singer on stage, pleasure rising up her face like the mercury in a thermometer, is a thing of beauty. As for Grant, Jack Hawk does have a touch of the Withnails about him, but this quietly heartbreaking performance is so much more than a reprise.

The only complaint is that Heller, in common with every other woman, was left off the best director shortlist. Her film captures perfectly the grubby side of New York, the pain of loneliness and the joy of writing when it goes well. Israel, who took the title of her memoir from a Dorothy Parker letter she forged, was intensely proud of her fakes. “I’m a better Dorothy Parker than Dorothy Parker,” she rages.

Don’t know about that, but Israel certainly gave the literary world a run for its buck.