Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (February 13, 2020)
Given that Helen Mirren’s film career started in 1967 and Ian McKellen’s began in 1969, one assumes the much-lauded pair of actors shared the screen many times. Nope – instead, it turns out that 2019’s The Good Liar offers their first-ever gig together.
Set in London circa 2009, Roy Courtnay (McKellen) operates as a con man. Among other sleazy endeavors, he meets widows on Internet dating sites and uses them for their savings.
Thus Roy encounters Betty McLeish (Mirren), a grandmother still not over the fairly recent loss of her husband. Using all his much-practiced charm, Roy ingratiates his way into Betty’s life, and although the relationship remains platonic, before long he winds up cohabitating with her.
Roy engages in the “long con”, as he plans to wheedle his way into Betty’s $2 million-plus savings. However, he finds unexpected obstacles along the way.
Unexpected for Roy the character but not so much for the audience. While I can’t claim that I saw every plot twist in advance, most seem pretty obvious.
Given that Liar needs to succeed as an on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense film, that becomes a massive flaw. When the viewer can decode the various curveballs well before they occur, any potential thrills drop to near zero.
It doesn’t help that Liar takes an awfully long time to get where it wants to go, mainly because it explores a lot of semi-tangential sidebeats. Granted, it ties these to the main plot by the end, but they still feel unnecessary, and a better-told tale could’ve gotten where it needed to go without them.
Director Bill Condon won an Oscar as a screenwriter, but for Liar, Jeffrey Hatcher handles that task. Would a Condon-penned script have elevated this often-tiresome tale? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s clear Hatcher can’t figure out how to make the journey compelling.
We spend most of our time with Roy, and like other at-the-time perplexing choices, this becomes more understandable by the end. However, Liar doesn’t make the most of these moments, and they tend to cause the story to drag.
The viewer knows that twists will come eventually, as that’s a staple of the genre. Rather than build tension, the tangents we follow with Roy simply feel like window dressing, as they don’t expand our understanding of the characters much.
Face it: even with revelations that pop up late in the film, Roy offers a pretty stock con man character. Betty gets her own surprise reveals, but those don’t alter her trajectory a whole lot either, so we mostly find ourselves stuck in a sluggish journey toward Roy’s inevitable comeuppance.
Should that count as a spoiler? Not really, as genre fans realize the likelihood that our slimy lead will get away with his crimes seems minimal at best.
Any potential fun comes from the trip toward Roy’s fate, but with so many predictable twists, Liar can’t muster much excitement in that vein. It takes far too long to get where it needs to go, and when the bombshells drop, they seem too uninspiring to improve matters.
At a basic level, it should be enjoyable to see legends like McKellen and Mirren onscreen together, but the dull nature of the project robs their scenes of much charm. Both seem to be on cruise control, as if they realize the script’s flaws and don’t want to bother to break a sweat.
I can’t blame them, as I’d feel pretty unenthused if I wound up stuck in this turkey. A dull stab at a thriller, Good Liar falls flat.