Not one solitary thing is fresh about Can You Ever Forgive Me?, and I'm not sure how far back in time you'd have to go for that statement not to be true. Even if you got as far back as 1991-1993, when the film takes place, I think people would be unimpressed by how much it feels like every single movie Woody Allen made in the 1980s: the same bourgeois jazzy standards on the soundtrack, the same flat color scheme and largely functional approach to where to set the camera, the same conversations about literary figures that a college freshman might take to name-dropping, the same conviction that New York is not merely the center of the universe, it is the whole of the universe.

On the other hand, I actually really like most of those Woody Allen movies, and freshness is only one thing. Solid, confident execution is another thing, and Can You Ever Forgive Me? is every inch a solid, confident movie. It is the kind of thing where absolutely nothing goes wrong, and the things that go right are good enough that even though there's basically no surprises in store (especially if you've seen the trailer, which gets us about 98% of the way through the plot), and no insights into human nature that you can't find in a good dozen or so movies every year, the film exerts a curious magnetism even so. It is hugely pleasant, with just enough sourness in the form of its lead performance to make you feel like you had to work a little bit for that pleasure (which I mean as a very good thing).

The film is the story of one Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy, giving possibly her best performance and certainly her most layered), an author of biographies who has been on hard times lately: hard enough that her agent Marjorie (Jane Curtin) has gone from "bullshitting her" to "ignoring her calls" to "openly insulting her right to her face". With nothing going for her other than a half-research book on Fanny Brice that nobody wants to read or buy, Lee turns to petty criminality, stealing a forgotten Brice letter tucked in an old library book; she then turns to active forgery, first embellishing letters by famous authors, and later writing them from scratch. Given the ridiculous world of snooty rich literary collectors, these witty, mildly salacious letters prove to be a substantial revenue source, and of course this eventually attracts the attention of the authorities.

The script, adapted from Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty from Israel's 2008 memoirs, splits its attention between the actual crime and how it was executed, and simply standing back to enjoy Lee's company. Though enjoyment is maybe not the word for it. One of the great triumphs of the film is that it quite unfussily refuses to spend any time at all pretending that its subject is an easy person to like, maybe that she's not even a worthwhile person to like. She's just an interesting human being, which is all the movie requires of her. And part of what generates that interest is how willing the film is to foreground her worst traits. The true story of Israel's stalled career involves bad timing on a book on EstΓ©e Lauder that came out a month after Lauder's autobiography, but the film glides past this to suggest that most of her problems were entirely self-inflicted: problems with alcohol, poor writerly discipline, and a profoundly shitty attitude about having to interact with other people. The twist is that McCarthy and director Marielle Heller conspire to make us root for Lee anyway, in part through the ancient, ever-reliable trick of giving her an animal to like, in part because McCarthy is such an affable presence, even when she's wearing the awful, mousy brown wig she has here, and in part because Israel chose such an unsympathetic target for her crimes as the insular, elitist world of collectors and resellers of upscale literary baubles. And also, in part, because there's such undeniable pleasure in watching somebody unapologetically cranky get to have fun without have to abide by social rules to get there.

Besides having such an admirably prickly lead, the other treat of the screenplay lies in how subtly the film teases out her character, as well as the garrulous con artist Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant), who ends up becoming her only friend. Some of this is front and center: we learn in pretty standard biopic fashion that Lee has intimacy issues that caused her drive away the only woman she ever loved. Some of it is buried a bit, like the fact that hearing about Lee's intimacy issues is the slantwise way the film tells us that she's a lesbian, and that this is an important means by which she and Jack (who is, much less slantwise, shown to be gay) bond over their outsider status. A lot of the film's character work comes simply from watching how the cutting tells us what triggers McCarthy's various annoyed, distressed, or softened looks, and from all the things she doesn't react to.

It's a good, sturdy, enjoyable character drama, and maybe the biggest single problem with the film is that it's also a crime story. It's not that watching the care with which Lee executes her forgeries, and later the dangerous ebullience with which Jack serves as her go-between, lacks any charm. They are fun, in the way that heist movies are almost invariably fun. The issue really is that nobody between the two screenwriters, the director, and the editor seem to have a very clear handle on how long all of this took, or how Lee's skills evolved; at one point, Jack moves some papers she set in the oven to artificially age them, and the two immediate responses I had were "How cunning!" and "When did she become a mastermind, rather than just a plucky, hungry writer with a good ability to mimic authorial voices?" And this goes from being annoyance to a genuine issue when the film enters its last act, as the FBI gets involved in tracking down New York's mysterious new forging genius. It skips across the whole matter of the investigation, Lee's blossoming paranoia and guilt, her humiliation at being found out by the book shop owner she's almost started dating, and the inevitable court scene in an undifferentiated burst of scenes that synopsize the end of the story more than they depict it.

It's not enough to wreck the modest joys the film has to offer, though it's certainly sufficient ensure that it's never anything but modest. Then again, we only get a couple contentedly square old-fashioned modest dramas for adults every year that are actually good, and this fits the bill precisely. It's a nice, easy sit, with two perfectly judged performances of characters who are slightly wrecked and all the more human for it, the kind of thing that just works, without flash or ingenuity, but strong in snugly-fitted craftsmanship.