The Good Liar. 2019
Directed by Bill Condon.
Starring Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Jim Carter, Russell Tovey, Mark Lewis Jones, and Laurie Davidson.
Career con artist Roy Courtnay can hardly believe his luck when he meets well-to-do widow Betty McLeish online. As Betty opens her home and life to him, Roy is surprised to find himself caring about her, turning what should be a cut-and-dry swindle into the most treacherous tightrope walk of his life.
Effective twists are both vague yet possible for eagle-eyed moviegoers to spot. It’s no surprise that The Good Liar has a shocking reveal or two (there are actually several), including one – this is not going to be a spoiler considering it’s laid out in the trailers – pulling the rug out from underneath Ian McKellen’s con artist Roy Courtnay, replacing the naivety and cluelessness of Helen Mirren’s widowed and rich Betty McLeish with agency. The problem is that the script from Jeffrey Thatcher and direction from Bill Condon (the Oscar-winner behind Gods and Monsters steers the ship, which eventually sails into a maelstrom) that is based on Nicholas Searle’s book goes overboard with surprises; the very obvious social commentary (and what would be incredibly poignant if done right) rings hollow. Instead of contemplating the nature and evil deeds of malicious people, one is left wondering why Nicholas Searle thought A, B, and C were necessary to reach X.
For some perspective, The Good Liar starts off as a somewhat amusing and actually thoughtful rib on the frivolous nature of online dating, only to wind up delving into some post-World War II Germany flashbacks. Given that these characters are elderly (one even has some illnesses and a possible short window before death) it’s rational that the past would play a part for, at least, one of them in this serpentine yarn of scamming, but when everyone’s cards are finally on the table, well, it elicits the reaction of “what the fuck” in a bewildering albeit entertaining way. It’s a movie where Ian McKellen stabs someone with an umbrella subsequently pushing the individual in front of a moving train, eventually proving to be nowhere near the most depraved and violent act on display. To think, The Good Liar actually starts off as a lighthearted sad but comedic look at the art of reverse psychology and general conniving behavior.
Not to say that there aren’t redeeming aspects regarding the ludicrous climax, but The Good Liar does work better when it’s not taking itself so seriously or taking an offbeat tone to some dark places that function as a disservice to the narrative. Roy lives to enact elaborate schemes to pry the wealth away from the people, as when he’s not enjoying his time with Betty buttering her up for the big score (an early scene sees them watching Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, as this film is set in 2009, leading to a brief, worthwhile discussion about naivety) he’s plotting with cohorts to doublecross a group of investors on a major buy-in that would see them reselling a glamorous property for twice the price.
Suffice to say, watching Ian McKellen live out this dual lifestyle is amusing, as around Betty he has trouble walking upstairs, seeks a relationship, and presents himself as the perfect chivalrous older gentleman. It’s certainly an intriguing acting challenge for the legendary talent, and make no mistake, Helen Mirren is equally excellent here; towards the end of the movie she has her own set of challenges and somehow saves this ridiculousness by playing it straight and making it work. With that said, McKellen gets the much meatier of the two-faced character, bringing a number of laughs in the early goings until we realize that there is something far more sinister and downright evil about his antics. Something this baffling could only rise above trashiness with committed and the right posh performers to sell it.
Naturally, there are a plethora of supporting characters intended to throw us off the scent with their interjections. That’s fine, but another miscalculation is how The Good Liar brings around nearly every damn character in the movie during the finale to play a part in the game. Nevertheless, they are serviceable and do actually have one or two moments that should have viewers questioning their predictions, with Russell Tovey standing out as a relative to Betty beyond frustrated at her willingness to throw all her trust at Roy.
Look, there’s a lot to say about The Good Liar but doing so would require spoiling intricate details, which would also take away every reason worth watching it. Practically everything about the third act is misguided, woefully executed (aside from the actors), and tears away every shred of believability here, but it’s a loopy ride that doesn’t disappoint when it comes to spicing up one of its more obvious turns. If you can get through a tone that’s all over the place and a sluggish middle act, you’re bound to find some measure of entertainment when the truth comes out. Just bear in mind it’s also nasty and repellent. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy The Good Liar, even when it flew off the rails.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com