THE STORY – Shriver, a down-on-his-luck handyman whose never read a book in his life, gets mistaken for a famous writer whose been in hiding for more than 20 years. With nothing to lose, he accepts an invitation to a college literary festival and soon finds himself surrounded by adoring fans and an English professor who captures his heart.
THE CAST – Michael Shannon, Kate Hudson, Don Johnson, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Zach Braff, Aja Naomi King, Jimmi Simpson & Peyton List
THE TEAM – Michael Maren (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 100 Minutes
“A Little White Lie” is the only second film by writer-director Michael Maren, whose previous film was 2014’s “A Short History of Decay.” Maren’s sophomoric effort is based on Chris Belden’s novel, Shriver, and features a stacked cast including Oscar nominees Michael Shannon and Kate Hudson. At first glance, the movie is a classic case of mistaken identity. It attempts to deal with imposter syndrome and other issues, such as misogyny in the literary world, but all the script does is meander throughout its 100-minute runtime.
The story takes place at the fictional Acheron University. Simone (Kate Hudson), a professor who aspires to be a famous writer, hopes inviting famed author Shriver to the university will save their literary festival. Shriver (Michael Shannon) is a handyman who lives alone with his cat and ends up getting mistaken for a famously reclusive author of the same name. What follows consists of Shriver attempting to fit in with this crowd of literary experts while struggling with his own identity crisis and bonding with Simone.
Fortunately, Maren wastes no time setting up the premise of “A Little White Lie,” even if it feels rushed and the characters’ motivations unclear. The central plot is rather preposterous and hardly believable, and Michael Maren doesn’t do anything interesting with this high-concept premise. Much of what transpires is fairly predictable – aside from a twist towards the end that doesn’t entirely work – including awkward interactions that you can practically choreograph from start to finish. It’s clear that Maren is trying to skewer the literary world, yet he fails to do that; the script is neither illuminating nor clever, and even the dialogue is rather dull and rarely funny, even when it intends to be. In fact, there are only a handful of laugh-out-loud moments in this so-called “comedy,” and even those moments felt forced. Even the more dramatic moments don’t ring true, despite the best efforts of actors like Shannon and Hudson. It’s not unheard of to make good dramedies – just look at the award-winning “The Banshees of Inisherin” – but Maren is nowhere near capable of doing so. The film ranges in tone from scene to scene and even within scenes, thereby making it difficult to classify “A Little White Lie” as any particular genre. Perhaps the only thing one might learn about the literary world from this film is that rampant misogyny is still present, which isn’t necessarily a shock to the system.
There’s also a weird subplot involving a mystery and/or possible crime, which is not interesting at all and is irrelevant. And, let’s not forget the all-over-the-place score that never really fits in with the tone(s) of a scene(s) in the film – which is not directed well, with some bizarre filmmaking techniques, such as slo-mo in moments where that doesn’t make sense. In addition, there’s an incredibly forced romance between Shriver and Simone that doesn’t work, and not just because Shannon and Hudson have limited to no chemistry; simply put, the script is lacking. Also, any intended character development is unwarranted and inauthentic, even though the film is long enough to allow the characters to breathe; yet, Maren’s script doesn’t allow them to. And, yet, the end has some entertaining moments, including a twist that is probably too far-fetched but is deserving of praise for its relative originality. That said, the script is not sophisticated or witty, and there’s minimal sharp dialogue (if any).
Shannon is primarily known for his dramatic work and for playing kooky, often grumpy characters. Here, he is completely misused; he is usually such a compelling, interesting presence, and the character of Shriver is probably the most boring he has ever been onscreen. For some reason, Maren has Shriver talking to himself in a series of hallucinatory moments meant to illustrate his fractured reality. It’s also puzzling why Maren did not let Shannon do his own voiceover work, which feels entirely misplaced in the first place. It seems Shriver is trying to change himself, but it’s unclear why he’s so keen on doing so and also why he ends up going to the university and (essentially) stealing someone else’s identity. Don Johnson plays another stereotypically misogynistic professor and practically the opposite of Hudson’s character, who is extremely hard-working and passionate about what she does. Then, there’s Da’Vine Joy Randolph, practically wasted in a thankless role as an aspiring author fangirling over Shriver; also, the quick appearances of Aja Naomi King, Jimmi Simpson, and Zach Braff really just seem pointless.
It’s really a shame that the actors mentioned above wasted their time on a completely forgettable and unremarkable film. A more gifted writer would have added some satirical elements and leaned more heavily on camp; while gentle, lighter tones can often work, this movie could have used more in-your-face moments. Its observations on the world it is showing are surface-level, at best, and not nuanced. It’s too quirky and not in a good way. “A Little White Lie” is, in a word, lifeless.