In the cat-and-mouse thriller “The Good Liar,” the role of the charming con man with a knack for forgery, robbery and extortion, fits Ian McKellan like a glove. Same for Helen Mirren as his easy target - a lonely grandmother with $3 million pounds in the bank.
In the opening scene, they meet-cute on the Distinction Dating website and engage in a getting-to-know-you online chat. A dinner together follows. Then another … and you know the drill. They click. Soon, he’s living in her suburban London home. They move fast. What follows is a script full of twists and turns with a third-act gearshift you can see a mile away.
The motivation for that climactic moment, however, is problematic. At the risk of spoiling the plot, let’s just say it turns the whole movie into something it doesn’t need to be. It’s unsatisfying. Before that, though, director Bill Condon (“Dreamgirls,” “Beauty And The Beast”), adapting the Nicholas Searle novel, adeptly builds suspense and suspicion, flirting with a combination of love story and morality tale. The premise - too-good-to-be-true suitor catfishes an unsuspecting widow - is loaded with potential. After all, who doesn’t love a good con?
But the first clue there is more than meets the eye is Mirren’s Betty. An actress of Mirren’s station doesn’t take on such a vanilla part unless there is something juicer coming. Truth be told, there isn’t, but the movie thinks it’s smarter than it is. To spice things up, Condon and screenwriter Jeffery Hatcher (“Mr. Holmes,” “Casanova”) add murder, Nazis and sketchy Russians to the mix. That always makes for a fun time. (Note: sarcasm.) Russell Tovey (TV’s “Quantico”) plays Betty’s grandson, Steven, who’s Spidey senses begin to tingle from the moment he first shakes Roy’s hand. He warns dear ol’ granny: “It’s too soon to be getting this close.” “Downton Abbey’s” Jim Carter is Vincent, Roy’s partner in crime.
Condon was smart to hire Mirren (an Oscar-winner for “The Queen”) and McKellan (best known as Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings”), both acting royalty (he’s a “Sir,” she’s a “Dame”), to play the leads. They add gravitas. McKellan’s roguish smile, dapper demeanor and Mirren’s steely eyes and regal poker face go a long way in reconciling the preposterous, heavy plotting and clumsy flashbacks. The casting of these two dynamos is a dream pairing. That’s no lie. But, I’d be fibbing if I said the movie lived up to its title. In an early scene, Roy describes online dating as “anticipation followed by a letdown.” I know the truth hurts, but that’s “The Good Liar” in a nutshell.
Dana Barbuto may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.
“The Good Liar”
Cast: Helen Mirren, Ian McKellen, Russell Tovey, Jim Carter. Grade:
(R for some strong violence, and for language and brief nudity.)