The Good Liar
Updated: Feb 9, 2020
Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are fantastic actors. Even when they are not knocking out powerful performances in great films, they can still effortlessly carry lesser movies with their charm and charisma. Their first project together, The Good Liar, is most definitely a lesser one. A twisty drama about a con man and his latest mark, it coasts for a while on the abilities of its stars. It is quite fun to watch them play off of each other. Then, once it nears its conclusion, it spends so much time on explanations that it destroys whatever momentum it had built up. This is a movie so focused on surprising its audience that it neglects to set up anything that would have made its climax smoother. I enjoyed the parts that allowed McKellen and Mirren to do their thing. But when the plot took over, it failed them.
Roy is a con man with a gift for fleecing people out of their money. Betty is a kind widower seeking some companionship. Most of the story concerns Roy’s attempts to get closer to Betty in an effort to take everything she has.
The Good Liar is based on a 2016 novel by Nicholas Searle. I have not read it, so I am unaware if the awkwardness of the presentation comes from the source material or if it is a problem original to the screenplay adaptation (by Jeffrey Hatcher). Either way, how it is relayed to the audience really prevents this from being what it could have. I cannot say any more than that without spoiling the whole movie, something I very much do not want to do. So, in regards to the story, I will just go with “The Good Liar bites off far more than it can chew,” then move on to another aspect of the production.
In McKellen’s hands, Roy is devious, charming, smart and vicious when need be. Despite him clearly being up to no good at all, it is enjoyable to watch him think on his feet to outwit people. The first half, which is fairly light in tone, verging on dark comedy, sees him involve himself in Betty’s life while dealing with a separate scheme on the side. McKellen is quite good in those setup scenes, showing a carefree man who is much more meticulous than he seems on the outside. Unfortunately, when things get darker in the second half, he no longer gets the chance to play the character. Roy becomes a bunch of plot elements and that is when things start to go off the rails.
It is similar for Mirren. Betty is sweet, naïve, lonely and innocent. Roy is able to get to her because of how caring she is. The moments where she opens up to him, with no idea of what he is actually up to, are well done. On the basis of what the two of them do here, a story truly about his manipulation and their relationship could have been pretty compelling. Mirren is sympathetic though, unlike McKellen, she mostly remains a concept throughout. Still, their conversations make this work longer than it probably should have. Until it completely stops working.
The Good Liar (103 minutes without the end credits) is a missed opportunity. It teams two great actors in a promising premise, then overwhelms them with too many occurrences, too many plot holes and far too much clunky exposition. The good parts (specifically the leads) create enough goodwill that I cannot entirely dismiss it, but be warned: there is a lot you will have to forgive to fully enjoy what is done here. I could not forgive enough to recommend it. However, I do not regret seeing it.
2¾ out of 5
Ian McKellen as Roy Courtnay
Helen Mirren as Betty McLeish
Russell Tovey as Stephen
Jim Carter as Vincent
Directed by Bill Condon
Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher