2019 | rated R | starring Ian McKellan, Helen Mirren, Jim Carter | directed by Bill Condon | 1 hr 45 mins |
Director Bill Condon’s adaptation The Good Liar is a movie that’s thirst for prestige approval get in the way of it’s story. It’s marketing is spoilerific to the point of misdirection, advertising a different movie than one we get here. It’s something I’ll get into at the end, because a movie’s marketing disappears long before the years it spends on the shelf ready to be consumed. But those prestige desires don’t. It’s a film that has cast two top shelf members of acting royalty, Sir Ian McKellan and Dame Helen Mirren and puts them through a mediocre story that would play better if both characters were played by no-name character actors.
Roy (McKellan) is an elderly con man who spends his nights on dating sites looking for wealthy widows. He meets and charms Betty (Mirren) and, along with his financial guy (Downton Abbey royalty Jim Carter), lulls her into a con that will involve her turning over her entire $3 million fortune. Betty’s son starts to suspect something is up and on a trip to Belgium probes into Roy’s WW2 past.
When we start getting into Nazi Germany World Ward 2 flashbacks – and rape – you know you’re in Oscar bait territory. Condron, whose made several mediocre prestige films relying on the high wattage talent of McKellan competently builds another one here. The movie is fine, it’s reasonably well made and well acted, shows off metropolitan non-tourist London and has a fairly straight-forward story. It is just derivative of just about any other con man movie we’ve seen.
Instead of interweaving the flashbacks in a clever way or unfolding the movie like a puzzle. The story stops and we get two lengthy Young Roy exposition dumps where McKellan and Mirren tell us their live story. Roy is an even bigger bastard than the con artist bilking widows out of their money we first meet and the movie really piles it all on. It may have been more effective if Young Roy was introduced earlier, built into the backbone of the movie, or the past and present day storylines ran parallel before weaving together. Instead, The Good Liar is one of those studio movies that has a twist queued up but can’t think of a story interesting enough in the meantime to distract us from that 3rd act reveal so it drags. Then we get the studio twist. It’s the Saw or Sixth Sense effect. That it doesn’t matter how time-filling or weak the story that came before, if the final twist sends the theater audience out satisfied they’ll feel the night out wasn’t a waste. It’s a tried and true cynical studio formula hung on otherwise disposable movies. It’s a mechanical movie, lacking personality or any flicker of a thrill. Like most of Condron’s other films.
The marketing campaign for The Good Liar pitched a far more interesting movie, one where McKellan’s con artist picked the wrong target and engaged in a cat and mouse game with Mirren’s con artist. That’s not exactly the movie we get here. In a murder mystery if you’re presented with several suspects, many unestablished actors and one of them is Peter Lorre, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess that the killer will probably be Peter Lorre, because name actors don’t sign up for background roles. Mirren’s casting in this movie betrays the illusion that we’re seeing just a dotting, meek housewife. We know something is going on long before the movie is ready to tell it. When the revenge comes, it’s not particularly satisfying.