Set in London 2009 — for somewhat arbitrary reasons — The Good Liar opens with two lonely souls seeking companionship via a dating website: Distinctive Dating. Both are elderly, and both check various boxes and add personal information while the opening titles play. It’s a cheeky way of giving the audience backstory and character traits, but as the title suggests, everything seen is a lie.
He is Roy Courtnay (Ian McKellen), a conman from day one. She is Betty McLeish (Helen Mirren), a window and an easy mark with a healthy savings account. Their meet-cute is more meet-clunky, but neither has a lot of options left. They start to date, gradually growing closer and more dependent on each other — much to the alarm of Betty’s grandson, Steven (Russell Tovey).
Steven has every right to be concerned: Roy isn’t who he says he is by a long shot. Along with his right-hand man, Vincent (Jim Carter), they move from one con to the next without pausing to take a vacation. Up until now, it’s been working — Vincent looks as dignified as Roy looks distinctive — but, really, anyone with half-a-brain ought to see these two coming a mile away. Maybe they do. Maybe they think they can take these old-timers at their own game. It’s hard to say, harder to believe.
Movies love a good con. From the street-level con, which takes only a minute, maybe less, but nets only dollars, maybe a watch, to the elaborate cons that required players playing roles over long periods. There seems to be a ratio: The longer and more elaborate the con, the bigger the payout. Or relief. Sometimes the con is for money; sometimes, it’s for revenge. There’s an old saying that the best revenge is a life well-lived. Then again, a life well-lived doesn’t exactly give the bad guy his comeuppance. Why be happy when you can make someone else miserable?
The Good Liar tries to have it both ways but comes up short. Based on Nicholas Searle’s novel, The Good Liar is a potboiler made for a mass-market audience. It lacks the details of a lived-in world and the darker imagery such subject matter requires. Director Bill Condon relies heavily on his leads — McKellan good; Mirren not given much to do — to make the movie sing, but they can’t. And like many mystery stories, Condon and screenwriter Jeffrey Hatcher withholds too much to make the complex third act reveal believable.
Some moments work: A chase down the London tube has a few nice touches, and one of Roy’s speeches midway through the film is delivered with McKellan’s patented command. But two moments do not a movie make. It’s a slow-going affair, one that suffers from a common apathy Roger Ebert loved pointing out: Movies made for everyone are made for no one in particular.
Directed by Bill Condon
Screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher
Adapted from the novel by Nicholas Searle
Produced by Bill Condon, Greg Yolen
Starring: Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter
Warner Bros., Rated R, Running time 109 minutes, Opens Nov. 19, 2019