Review Roundup: THE GOOD LIAR Starring Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen - What Did the Critics Think?
The Good Liar is a 2019 AMERICAN CRIME thriller film directed and produced by Bill Condon and written by Jeffrey Hatcher, based on the novel of the same name by Nicholas Searle. It stars Ian McKellen as a career con-artist who meets a wealthy widow (Helen Mirren) online, and begins to plan how to steal her fortune.
The film was released in the United States on November 15, 2019
Let's see what the critics are saying...
Ben Kenigsberg, The New York Times: The sleight of hand "The Good Liar" tries to pull off might be easier to keep hidden on the page. As it progresses, the film reveals complications (it plays particularly dubious tricks with the way it parcels out flashbacks to the 1940s) and a motive that might as well have been picked out of a hat. The finale could be written with entirely different details, and almost no scene preceding it would have to change. The real good liar is whoever convinced Mirren and McKellen to class up such thin and arbitrary material.
Elizabeth Weitzman, The Wrap: Both Mirren and McKellen are smoothly professional all the way through. And there's always pleasure to be found watching top-class actors loosen up in a low-stakes setting. But Hatcher's script doesn't offer them any realistic motivations, and Condon is fatally ambivalent about how much he wants to share until the end. Moreover, there is no one to root for: Roy is exposed immediately as a villain, and Betty doesn't have the vulnerabilities or personality quirks that might inspire empathy.
Owen Gleiberman, Variety: We're used to movies about con artists turning into shell-game entertainments, like the "Ocean's" films or David Mamet's trap-door thrillers. But "The Good Liar" turns out to have a more serious upshot than you'd expect. There's a backstory, set during World War II, and it's all about abuse, survival, misogynistic crime, and the seeds of a sociopath. It all adds up, yet you may feel that the too-wicked-for-words caginess that was so appealing in the film's first half didn't need to be leavened with the furrowed brow of historical reckoning. (You may also find that the plausibility factor gets a bit too stretched for comfort.) In the end, the true subject of "The Good Liar" isn't con artistry but vengeance. And that's just enough of a turn of the screw to make you want to see the whole thing again.
Brian Lowry, CNN: 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. 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."
Andrew Lapin, NPR: 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.
Kenneth Turan, LA Times: But perhaps the biggest bit of fakery involved is that for all its twistiness, "The Good Liar's" plot, which can be more than a little frustrating, is as much of a liability as a benefit in a production where the characters turn out to be more involving than their story. That's because the actors in question, Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen, are the most proficient of professionals. Efficiently directed by the veteran Bill Condon (who has worked with McKellen thrice previously), they are an enormous pleasure to watch, both individually and playing off each other on screen for the first time in their decades-long careers.
David Fear, Rolling Stone: The real question is: Are you willing to endure all of that random swerving for the simple pleasure of these performers' company? Both actors are, unsurprisingly, bending over backwards here to sell these characters and establish enough screen chemistry to smooth over a lot of rough patches. McKellen is incredibly adept at playing cunning and slippery; he'd be a perfect late-in-life Tom Ripley. (There's also a sequence where you see Roy virtually deflate before your eyes, and that lets you observe how McKellen can turn a simple glance back into a three-act melodrama.) And Mirren, always a dependable presence, knows exactly when to underplay Betty's naive attachment to this mysterious stranger and when to suggest that there's a lot happening behind those eyes of hers. They play off each other beautifully despite the material, and they get a chance to indulge in the aforementioned range of sound and fury. Yes, you would watch these two in virtually anything. You just wish it wasn't this. They deserve something sturdier and far less head-slappingly preposterous, and that's the truth.
Johnny Oleksinski, New York Post: The fun of "The Good Liar" is that, just when you think you've got a proper handle on what's going on, your reality is completely shattered. A few times. And while the film is a thriller, Mirren and McKellen are nimble enough to keep things as bouncy as a Noël Coward play. And what a pleasure it is to see two such giants going head to head. They manage to be both warm and scary, and it's hard to imagine this film working without them. It's big, dangerous acting in the tradition of "Brief Encounter."
Jon Frosch, The Hollywood Reporter: Yet The Good Liar's sophistication is nothing if not skin-deep. For all its nasty twists and turns, its fake-outs and flashbacks and cheekily preposterous pile-up of double-crosses, this story of an elderly con man and the wealthy widow he targets feels fatally devoid of danger. Square, tame and tidy as the London-area house kept by Mirren's primly elegant, creamy-complexioned septuagenarian, The Good Liar is a work of skill but little spark.
Phil De Semlyen, TimeOut: Director Bill Condon ('Gods and Monsters') can do this stuff with his eyes closed, and sometimes it feels like he might be doing that as the plot chugs from London to Berlin and secrets are duly uncovered. But there's enough visual flair to elevate things above standard genre fare. A god's-eye view of Betty's suburb resembles a nocturnal labyrinth lit up by the searching headlights of Roy's car. It's a neat metaphor for a mazy thriller that only gets lost at the very end.
Tim Robey, Telegraph: The Good Liar is oddly misjudged as a title, too, in that it contains precisely zero good lies, and no one's much good even at the bad ones. "A system for mismatching the delusional with the hopeless," Betty declares, in a cumbersome stab at wit, of the online dating game - a subject it could more suspensefully have explored between two genuine strangers, which Betty and Roy turn out not to be. The film matchmakes its stars, assuming everything else will fall into place - but it's lying to itself.
Jake Coyle, AP: "The Good Liar" is a kind of film one wants to love. Such old-fashioned genre movies, let alone those starring actors in their 70s and 80s, are hard to find these days. But in trying to take a simple crime set-up and stretch it into a more sweeping tale of vengeance and victimhood, "The Good Liar" has to make some fairly preposterous moves to get there, and it doesn't do a very good job of cloaking them.
Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian: This movie rattles along with terrific energy and dash and the flashback sequences show that it's actually far more daring and ambitious that you might expect. It's a great duel between McKellen and Mirren.
Hau Chu, Washington Post: The story, which is ultimately about how we wish to portray ourselves, lands well enough, for the most part. But can anyone ever escape the past? The film doesn't so much ask this as gesture to it, awkwardly. "The Good Liar" isn't really about grand moral issues, anyway, beyond a simple fact: The echoes of a lie, however distant, never really fade.
Joe Morgenstern, The Wall Street Journal: The calculation couldn't be clearer. Put two superb performers together-they don't get superber than Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen-and you're on your way to making an exceptional movie. Not so fast, though. "The Good Liar" is calculation from arch start to hollow finish.