A Little White Lie

Writer/director Michael Maren must have blackmail material on several well-known stars. I don’t say that to be snarky or mean. I honestly can’t think of any other reason why people like Michael Shannon, Kate Hudson, and Don Johnson would agree to star in A Little White Lie. There is no way they read this monumentally stupid screenplay and believed it would make a good film. The story is a series of moronic developments that stretch credibility to the breaking point, then keep right on stretching. Directed with all the style of a commercial for life insurance, it’s an unmitigated disaster.

Hudson plays Simone Cleary, a college English professor. Her department is supposed to put on an annual literary event, but they can’t find a prominent writer willing to attend. Unbeknownst to her colleagues, including the drunkard Wasserman (Johnson), she has reached out to “Shriver” (no first name), an author who wrote a brilliant novel 20 years ago, then went into hiding, never to be seen again. He has agreed to appear at the event, to everyone’s delight.

But Shriver isn’t Shriver. He’s Shriver (Shannon), an apartment building handyman who hasn’t written a word in his life. This sad sack decides to accept the free trip, because he has nothing else going on in his life, so why not? He arrives at the event, whose theme is lies and fabrications – because Maren is apparently a fan of obvious symbolism – and then feels guilty about what he’s doing. At times, another version of Shriver appears to admonish himself for the deception.

For the longest time, A Little White Lie simply repeats itself, with Shriver meeting a bunch of people who all mistakenly think he’s a genius. He tries not to lie, yet also doesn’t tell the truth. Occasionally, we get a scene of him sulking through the hotel, feeling miserable about leading people on. It’s incredibly dull. Compounding that is the impression that Michael Shannon is in a different movie than everyone else. They’re all making a farcical comedy, he’s making a serious picture about a troubled soul. That’s not a criticism of the actor. His movie sounds far more entertaining than the one we actually get.

Then the dumb plot complications start getting layered on and the movie becomes insufferable. Does Simone start to fall for Shriver? Of course. You also get: a cigar-chomping cop (Jimmi Simpson) who shows up suggesting Shriver might have killed his own wife; a fellow writer who disappears after being spotted with Shriver; another guy (Zach Braff) who arrives claiming to be the real Shriver; a sultry college cheerleader (Peyton List) Shriver lusts for after seeing her by the hotel pool; a wealthy lady (Wendie Malick) who has bedded several great authors and hopes to make Shriver her latest conquest; and a journalist who may or may not be on to Shriver’s ruse.

Believe it or not, there are a couple more elements I didn’t mention, including a “twist” involving the lead character so improbable that it’s insulting we’re asked to believe it. Most of these threads are resolved in ridiculous fashion, i.e. without a shred of credibility. If you guessed the finale involves a big confessional speech, pat yourself on the back.

What is the point of this movie? Maren doesn’t seem to know. His script is poorly written, with one-dimensional characters, contrived situations, and artificial sentiments. Visually, A Little White Lie is flat. Even worse, during the big finale, it’s clear that one supporting player isn’t in the scene with the other actors and has, in fact, performed her dialogue in front of a green screen. The integration is that bad. It looks like one of those Zoom backgrounds where everything is out of focus except for the person you’re talking to. Spending 100 minutes watching likeable stars trapped in something this witless and artless is profoundly depressing.

out of four

A Little White Lie is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 41 minutes.