'The Good Liar' can't make the most of its dream Mirren-McKellen pairing

A con man is in for more than he bargained for when he sets his sights on a wealthy widow. David Daniel reports.

Posted: Nov 13, 2019 9:20 PM
Updated: Nov 13, 2019 9:20 PM

The world-class pairing of Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen is the only calling card that "The Good Liar" needs. Yet even these two knighted performers -- in a rare star vehicle for a pair of senior citizens -- can't elevate this adaptation of Nicholas Searle's book, which clearly wants to be twisty and Hitchcockian but never quite gets there.

Instead, the film -- directed by Bill Condon (who worked with McKellen on "Gods and Monsters," before helming "Dreamgirls" and "Beauty and the Beast") -- winds up feeling like a better-than-average Lifetime movie, just with an inordinately pedigreed cast. That includes not only the leads but Jim Carter ("Downton Abbey") as McKellen's literal partner in crime, given that his character, Roy Courtnay, is a con man, one who plays the doddering old sweetheart right up until he sticks the knife in.

Roy's victims come in all shapes and sizes, but a financially comfortable widow who he meets online certainly looks like an easy mark. At first, Mirren's Betty McLeish seems completely smitten, even if her grandson (Russell Tovey) is skeptical about the breakneck pace of the relationship.

Still, Betty might not be all that she appears either, setting up a possible game of cat and mouse intended to keep the audience guessing right up until the end about both the predator and the prey.

It's a tasty M&M combination, to be sure, and a fertile (if familiar) idea; still, the turns in Jeffrey Hatcher's script -- which obviously shouldn't be spoiled -- don't possess the wallop that they should, perhaps because as constructed, a few seem to come almost completely out of left field.

The shortcomings, it's worth noting, are no fault of the leads, and there's something fairly intoxicating in our youth-obsessed media age simply seeing a project built around a duo of Shakespearean actors who, between them, bring more than 150 years to the screen. (Mirren has been especially busy of late, including a juicy showcase in HBO's "Catherine the Great.")

The movie thus plays like a throwback to a bygone era, when such modestly scaled star vehicles were more common at major studios (the film is being released by Warner Bros., like CNN, part of WarnerMedia), and enough to lure people to theaters. From that perspective it almost feels like an experiment in counter-programming, something for parents and grandparents to watch after dropping the kids off at "Frozen II."

Yet despite the temptation to encourage people to patronize the film if only on symbolic grounds, to praise "The Good Liar" much beyond the kick of seeing McKellen and Mirren together would be, well, less than truthful.

"The Good Liar" premieres Nov. 15 in the US. It's rated R.

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