As famous and beloved as Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren may be, decent roles for actors their age are still tough to come by, so it’s hard to blame them for signing up for the clumsy, absurd thriller The Good Liar, which lets them play the kind of devious, sexy, powerful characters usually reserved for younger actors. The two actors have strong chemistry and clearly enjoy sparring with each other, and they bring all of the expected class and wit to their performances. But the script by Jeffrey Hatcher (based on the 2016 novel by Nicholas Searle) lets them down, saddling them with awkward dialogue and muddled motivations, all to set up left-field twists delivered in lengthy hunks of exposition without any dramatic weight.
Before those twists come, the set-up seems relatively straightforward: Betty (Mirren) is a timid widow dipping her toes back into the dating pool a year after losing her husband. Roy (McKellen) is a charming con artist with a history of bilking wealthy old ladies like Betty. He positions himself as a the perfect suitor, and soon he’s being invited to stay over at her house (chastely, of course), join her on vacation and help with her medical care. His main goal is to get at her substantial savings, and he enlists his partner Vincent (Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter) to pose as a financial adviser to make that happen. Only Betty’s grad-student grandson Steven (Russell Tovey) suspects that Roy might not be as benevolent as he makes himself out to be.
While the actual plot twists that pile up in the third act are tortuous and highly implausible, anyone who’s seen a con-artist movie will know that there must be more to Betty than appears on the surface, and most of the movie is spent waiting for a reveal about what she’s really up to. In the meantime, Betty and Roy play out a sort of dull pantomime of a romance, with occasional meaningful looks that indicate something else is going on in the background. Roy and Vincent also pursue a separate con involving money transfers that is even less interesting than Roy’s seduction of Betty, and seems to exist solely for the convenience of having some extra characters to use for tying up loose ends.
Director Bill Condon previously worked with McKellen on the elegiac dramas Gods and Monsters and Mr. Holmes, but The Good Liar doesn’t really engage with ideas about mortality and regret. It’s more interested in surprises and suspense, but most of the story is too sedate to build up much excitement, and despite the glee with which McKellen and Mirren deliver their juiciest lines, the characters aren’t interesting enough to either cheer on or despise. Keeping most of Betty’s internal life secret in order to deliver a twist means that Mirren spends the majority of the movie just floating by, nodding along with Roy’s schemes and manipulations. Her character only comes to life when the movie is nearly over.
The Good Liar is as slick and tastefully decorated as Betty’s meticulous home in a carefully maintained retirement community, and it’s an adequate showcase for its lead actors, who are as vibrant as ever. They trade lively barbs, but when the story tries to grapple with serious issues, it leaves its stars stranded. The movie presses the limits of credulity past the point that even great acting can convincingly bear.