The Good Liar Review
Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren take the lead in 'The Good Liar.'
Release Date: November 5, 2019
MPAA Rating: R
Consummate con man Roy Courtnay has set his sights on his latest mark: the recently widowed Betty McLeish, worth millions. But this time, what should have been a simple swindle escalates into a cat-and-mouse game with the ultimate stakes.
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriters: Jeffrey Hatcher, Nicholas Searle
Producers: Bill Condon, Greg Yolen
Cast: Helen Mirren (Betty McLeish), Ian McKellen (Roy Courtnay), Russell Tovey (Steven), Jim Carter (Vincent)
Editor: Virginia Katz
Cinematographer: Tobias A. Schliessler
Production Designer: John Stevenson
Casting Director: Lucy Bevan
Music Score: Carter Burwell
During his thirty-year career in Hollywood, director Bill Condon has made everything from the horror sequel Candyman: Farewell to the Flesh to the live action Disney remake of Beauty and the Beast, and written everything from the schlocky Strange Behavior to the saccharine The Greatest Showman. For his newest movie, he tackles the swindle genre with The Good Liar.
The Good Liar is about a career conman named Roy Courtnay (Apt Pupil’s Ian McKellen) who has spent his life grifting people out of their money through fast-talking investment schemes. He meets a woman named Betty McLeish (Winchester’s Helen Mirren) online, and at first, he just wants her company. But as soon as he discovers that she has a stash of money, he switches into conman mode and comes up with a plan to steal it. What he doesn’t know is that Betty has a few secrets of her own.
Bill Condon directed The Good Liar from a screenplay that was adapted by Jeffrey Hatcher (who had previously written Mr. Holmes for Condon) from the Nicholas Searle novel of the same name. It’s a thrilling little cat and mouse game that keeps its audience guessing. It’s a delicious little slice of pulp.
At least, the first two acts are delicious little slices of pulp. The reason why The Good Liar is able to keep its audience guessing is because the third act leans heavily on contrivances that are not telegraphed, so it appears as if Condon and Hatcher have just pulled rabbits out of their hats. Add in the fact that the ending is completely spelled out in spoken exposition (rather than shown through clever action), and the whole climax just seems like a copout, like the audience has had the rug pulled out from under it.
The frustrating part is that the good movie could have been great with just a few subtle nods and tweaks. Throughout the movie, there are little tells about Roy’s motivations that are presented, and they’re great at keeping the audience a step ahead of the characters. If the movie had done the same for Betty, things could have been wild. And there are hints of it – a strange man in a scratched-up car who Roy keeps seeing outside of Betty’s house, for example – but nothing that really pays off. It’s almost as if Condon shot an early draft of the script instead of letting Hatcher finish throwing in the finesse.
Despite the deus ex machina conclusion and the spoonfed explanations, The Good Liar is a good time. McKellen and Mirren are on top of their game, and they are capably supported by Russell Tovey (“Quantico”) as Betty’s grandson and Jim Carter (My Week With Marilyn) as Roy’s trusted accomplice. And the setup and meat of the movie is terrific. It just doesn’t stick the landing. Again, a good movie, but not a great movie.
Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren are let down by the script for The Good Liar. Both give borderline brilliant performances, but they’re tied down by the wordy dialogue and silver platter revelations. Granted, no one delivers wordy dialogue quite like McKellen, so that’s a saving grace, but it’s the subtle, non-verbal things that keep the audience interested. For example, in one scene, Roy, Betty, and Betty’s grandson are travelling in a car in Berlin and the grandson…does something. And Roy reacts. To say more about the scene would spoil some of the fun, but just know that it’s one of the finest moments in the movie, and McKellen says more with a facial expression than any of Hatcher’s words can ever muster. And Mirren has moments like that, too. The pair are a treat to watch, and they turn an average script into a really fun movie.