There’s a scene in The Good Liar in which Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen go on a date. They’re seeing Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds – not exactly the date movie one expects two silver foxes to enjoy as a matinee. It is a hoot, though, to see one of them squirm in their seat when the Basterds pump Hitler’s face full of bullets. The other, however, soaks it up with a perverse thrill. Inglourious Basterds, after all, is thrilling stuff. One doesn’t need to be a Millennial fanboy to appreciate QT’s revisionist history. It’s fun to rewrite a villain’s story.
This date offers a shrewd and tongue-in-cheek clue towards unlocking the mysteries of The Good Liar. With actors as strong as these veterans, one wishes The Good Liar had more moments that hinged on their talents. The geriatric potboiler offers a mostly faithful adaptation of Nicholas Searles’ 2016 bestseller. However, the QT matinee is one of few scenes devised by screenwriter Jeffrey Hunter that playfully hints at the film’s potential.
But audiences expecting another magical reunion for McKellen and his Gods and Monsters/Mr. Holmes director Bill Condon will be disappointed. McKellen’s great fun playing the duplicitous con artist Roy Courtnay who makes a life of long and short wagers. Condon, however, is out of his element, as he’s been since randomly taking the helm of 2006’s Motown bootyshaker Dreamgirls. He excels at character-driven storytelling, and there’s no doubt that McKellen and Mirren save the film. But slick, moody genre pieces aren’t really his game. Even scenes with reliable character actors like Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter, who appears as Roy’s partner-in-crime, doesn’t seem to know what movie in which he appears.
The film strips away the backstories from Searle’s book that reveal themselves gradually throughout the he said/she said narration. In the film, audiences watch as Roy meets Betty (Mirren) in a pub after matching on an online dating site. Despite the great chemistry between the veteran actors and the playful delight they relish in toying with the characters’ cat-and-mouse game, The Good Liar often strains credibility as it asks audiences to go along for the ride. Roy, an 80-year-old grifter, obviously sets Betty as his mark. But it’s hard to believe that Betty is a stupidly naïve as the film thinks she is. The Good Liar might be a rare case in which Mirren nearly overplays her hand in some scenes. Tonally, the film is often wishy washy and hokey when one expects suspense and intrigue.
The book introduces the crimes of Roy’s past and those of a young German boy, Hans, in flashback. The stories appear with points of view changing ever so cautiously to avoid giving away the big reveal. There’s a delicious Hitchcockian thrill in piecing the story together as the elder Roy tries to secure his retirement at Betty’s expense. The film, however, speeds through Roy and Betty’s courtship. It offers the first major twist around the halfway mark and undercuts whatever mystery hangs in the air. There’s no build-up. The twists are arbitrary, out-of-nowhere head-spinners.
But worse than the timing his how the twist reveals itself in a clumsy scene. Everything comes out as a confession aided by a clunky flashback. It then chugs along for the rest of the story until the other reveal comes, again, as a monologue. This one arrives with far greater vigour and bigger theatrical flare. Without giving anything away, this gotcha moment, like the Basterds date, hints at the film’s potential. There’s a difference between being told a password and cracking it oneself.
Searle’s book is the ultimate catfishing story. The film needs a storyteller of Mirren and McKellen’s caliber—a Hitchcock, say—for The Good Liar to reach its full potential. Hamfisted direction aside, Liar remains a good watch even when it asks too much of the audience’s generosity. Enjoying Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen together is reliable entertainment. Perhaps the story behind their casting is a catfishing tale for another movie.
The Good Liar opens in theatres Nov. 15.