The combination of Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen (acting for the first time together in the film) seems like a fool-proof combination, especially in the hands of director Bill Condon (who has worked with McKellen on Gods and Monsters, Mr. Holmes, and even the recent live-action version of Beauty and the Beast; he also directed Kinsey and Dreamgirls). And while the two leads in The Good Liar (based on the popular novel by Nicholas Searle, adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher) are quite compelling when on screen together, there’s a serious disconnect between them and the material that, by the end, is unforgivable.
We know almost from the opening that Roy Courtnay (McKellen) is a con artist who seems to target rich businessmen along with his professional partner Vincent (Jim Carter, from Downton Abbey). They present what appear to be quite legitimate and lucrative investment opportunities and end up stealing large sums of money. It’s their knowledge of the language of business that makes them a success. I’m not sure we’re ever quite sure if Roy has targeted the well-off widow Betty McLeish (Mirren) from an online dating service because of her money or because he’s actually looking to settle down, but when he finds out how much money she’s worth, he immediately arranges with Vincent to get her interested in investing her millions in ways that will make her a sizable sum in a short amount of time.
But along the way, the speed at which Roy and Betty become close worries her grown grandson Steven (Russell Tovey), and there’s even a part of the entire arrangement that makes us think Roy might actually be falling for his mark and perhaps reconsidering ripping her off. At one point, we think his cover is blown when the couple and Steven take a vacation to Berlin, where Steven reveals that he’s found out that Roy isn’t all he says he is. But when Roy explains things from his perspective, Betty is all the more drawn to him and his reasons for his deception (this particular secret has nothing to do with swindling her, but it’s still pretty juicy).
The Good Liar falls apart in the third act, but there are clues that things aren’t going to quite come together even before that. My biggest issue with the film is that, under no circumstances could I buy Helen Mirren as a hapless, naive victim. She’s built a career playing tough, intelligent, cunning characters, so I never quite bought that she would be taken in by Roy’s plan to combine their finances and invest them together. But the film’s bigger crime is that when the entire truth about the situation is revealed, it’s so convoluted and outlandish that I had a tough time accepting any of it.
More importantly, the film turns into a mystery that has given the audience absolutely no clues by which to solve it. We’re just asked to accept this fairly insane reveal and think “How about that?” I actually like to play along with my favorite mysteries, and this film offers no such opportunities. There are points in the last 20 minutes or so where I actually expected the actors to break out laughing at how unlikely the words that they’re saying are. Condon is usually better with his storytelling skills, so maybe it’s more the fault of the writing than the directing. But I’d expect him as the filmmaker to recognize the shift in tone as abrupt and jarring and do something to ease into the gotcha moment rather than drop it on our heads.
If your only purpose in seeing The Good Liar is to witness these two acting powerhouses come together, your wish will be granted tenfold. But if you’d actually like to see them interact in a worthy setting, this film may be something of a letdown.
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