Review: 'The Good Liar' Needs A Few More Good Twists In Bill Condon's film set among London's septuagenarian set, Ian McKellan attempts to con Helen Mirren out of her fortune, but we're always one step ahead of the story.
NPR logo 'The Good Liar,' The Con Is A Pro — As Expected

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'The Good Liar,' The Con Is A Pro — As Expected

In Bill Condon's The Good Liar, Roy (Ian McKellan) targets widow (Helen Mirren) and her extensive fortune. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

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Warner Bros. Pictures

In Bill Condon's The Good Liar, Roy (Ian McKellan) targets widow (Helen Mirren) and her extensive fortune.

Warner Bros. Pictures

When a movie is called The Good Liar, you expect a certain amount of deception. So how many con jobs would you say, on average, you'd want out of a nearly two-hour con film to feel like you'd gotten your money's worth of swindles? Is it more than one or two? If so, bad news.

That's not to say the pulpy new retiree thriller, headlined by Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren and based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Searle, is devoid of charm. McKellen in particular is a hoot as the scam artist Roy Courtnay (not his real name, obviously), an oily codger who prowls London to lure in high-finance marks. The character knows his age makes folks underestimate him, and McKellen milks that deception for all it's worth: stumbling around on a supposed bum leg one minute, breezily strolling through a strip club in the next. He growls and turns heel with a scenery-chewing glee that hearkens back more to his Shakespeare days than his blockbuster turns as Gandalf or Magneto.

Roy's con of choice is the fake investment, where he convinces rich idiots to deposit some funds into a joint account, then drains their savings and skedaddles. He starts working a similar angle with Mirren's wealthy widow Betty from the opening scene, in which the two are matched on an online dating service. Quickly Roy weasels his way into Betty's cozy suburban life, making empty proclamations of having "grown fond" of his target, as he tries stringing her along until she'll file a joint savings account with him. It seems like he may have pulled this stunt with gullible widows before. Hide your nest eggs.

Director Bill Condon, working from a screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, gets the feel of a landscape rife with double-crossers without ever really pushing things into unexpected territory. The Good Liar might be surprising to those who have a habit of underestimating Helen Mirren, in which case there's probably a lot of things ready to surprise them. Is her dotty naivete believable for even one minute? Since Mirren's only job is to obscure her character's true motivation, she has to spend most of her role cheerfully floating through the days, unable to give us a sense of her internal being. And yet, Betty's closely guarded truths prove so beguiling to Roy that she somehow convinces this master criminal to make some pretty elementary mistakes, which, as we know from several lifetimes of heist movies, is always the mastermind's fatal undoing.

Distractions arrive with Downton Abbey's Jim Carter as Roy's loyal partner-in-crime, and Looking's Russell Tovey as Betty's grandson, a history PhD student who immediately distrusts Roy's backstory. History itself is soon revealed as the biggest liar of all, as the film makes a detour to Berlin and dwells into these characters' wartime and postwar pasts. But here we find more confusion, particularly around the question of whether certain people were or were not Nazi sympathizers, a tidbit the film teases before ultimately shrugging off. ("Then why are we spending all this time in 1940s Berlin?" you might ask. Why, indeed.)

It's nice to see a big studio film in 2019 (this one comes from Warner Brothers) that acknowledges the existence of an audience over the age of 70. Or, really, any audience at all that's interested in stories about older people who aren't wearing robes or spandex, as McKellen himself can attest to. But The Good Liar opens up a thornier question about the modern film industry. In an age where the whims of teenagers control more of the box office than they ever have before, and breed ever more resentment among non-teen moviegoers, are we capable of admitting that stories about older people are not, by default, more complex or sophisticated than stories about the youth? Sometimes a silly movie is just a silly movie with a few wrinkles.