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film review

Ian McKellen, left, and Helen Mirren in a scene from The Good Liar.The Associated Press

  • The Good Liar
  • Directed by Bill Condon
  • Written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel by Nicholas Searle
  • Starring Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren and Russell Tovey
  • Classification R
  • 109 minutes

Rating:

2.5 out of 4 stars

It is a dangerous act of hubris, making a film about con artists. If a director wants his or her work to retain a shred of credibility, they need to be just as far ahead of the audience as their characters, often more so. When this kind of forward-thinking scheming works, it can be glorious fun. Think of The Sting, Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s movies, and David Mamet’s one-two punch of House of Games and The Spanish Prisoner – all as unpredictable as their anti-heroes, twisty enough to elicit frequent grins and demand repeat viewings. Yet the genre offers plenty of opportunities for filmmakers to inadvertently show their hand, too – to reveal that they’re not nearly as smart as they think they are. Such is the case, regrettably, with The Good Liar, a con-artist movie that is something of a con itself.

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An adaptation of Nicholas Searle’s novel, Bill Condon’s new film promises delicious deviance by pitting two giants of the British screen against one another: Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. Who wouldn’t want to watch the two performers square off in a sly game of cat and mouse, especially knowing the results of the last time Condon and McKellen collaborated (1998′s Gods and Monsters)? It all seems like such irresistible cleverness – or at the very least a civilized respite from the loud and clanging franchise efforts that are crowding the cinemas this autumn. The Good Liar gives its jig up early, though, and overcompensates with a third-act pivot that isn’t so much shrewd as it is out-of-nowhere preposterous.

There is still some joy in watching McKellen and Mirren inject high class and sincere conviction into the (mostly) predictable proceedings. The former has a subtle ball as Roy, a dapper scoundrel who won’t let old age put a stop to his misdeeds, acting as a sort of Dupe Bigalow, British Gigolo, for susceptible widows. Mirren has a trickier job playing the well-off lonely-heart Betty; the actress has to constantly balance naivety and skepticism, lest one performative misstep give the whole story away. She pulls it off handily, treating Jeffrey Hatcher’s script as if it’s the Shakespeare of Scam Cinema (it’s not).

The pair’s chemistry is so potent that it acts as a trick itself – a cinematic swindle to convince you that The Good Liar is more good than it is, well, a liar. Yet there are long stretches where McKellen and Mirren are separated, offering plenty of opportunity to pick apart the story’s messier assumptions and plot devices. For instance, a huge part of Roy’s deception relies on the employment of an iPad-like tablet computer for transferring bank funds that I’m fairly certain doesn’t exist, and if it did, no one with half a brain cell would be stupid enough to use it. And then there’s the film’s final 10 minutes, which incorporate an extended flashback scene that would function as an impressive narrative reveal were it foreshadowed or alluded to in even the most subtlest of ways in the movie’s first hour and a half.

The best con-artist films know that the end has to make sense if you were to double back and start from the beginning. The Good Liar doesn’t have the energy or wit to play that game. So it will be content with simply duping you, instead.

The Good Liar opens Nov. 15