When a handyman living in New York City is mistaken for a famous and famously reclusive writer, he’s brought to a university where he is to deliver a keynote address to save the school’s literary festival.
Certain directors have an indefinable touch they bring to their films, an instinctual approach that adds a sense of energy or plausibility to whatever story they are telling. Frank Capra and Preston Sturges had the ability to create a distinctive mood, the audience unknowingly swept away but the sense of whimsy they would create, ready to accept their premises without question, seeing themselves in their sympathetic everyman characters. What made their films standout was the directors’ ability to successfully combine comedy and pathos, each tone successfully executed, neither undercutting the other, both equally effective in either eliciting laughter and tears from the audience.
That approach is sorely missing in Michael Maren’s “A Little White Lie,” an almost-not-quite-successful comedy that is in dire need of such a touch. Much like the protagonists in “Meet John Doe” or “Hail the Conquering Hero,” the main character here is pretending to be someone he is not, a situation that we know, once revealed, will result in chaos. And while this premise plays out as expected, the revelation lands with a thud, despite the best efforts of Maren’s strong cast.
Desperate to save the literary festival at Acheron University where she teaches, Professor Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson) has sent out numerous invitations to a myriad of authors, hoping she can convince a major writer to attend. She hits paydirt – or so she thinks – when she gets a response from C.R. Shriver, a recluse who wrote a classic novel some 30 years earlier, then dropped off the map. What Cleary doesn’t realize is that her letter has reached another Shriver (Michael Shannon), a down-on-his-luck maintenance man at a fleabag hotel. With nothing better to do, and acting on bad advice from a friend, he decides to accept this errant invitation and before you know it, he’s being feted and praised by the members of Acheron’s literature department, particularly T. Wasserman (Don Johnson).
The problem is, Shriver also finds himself under attack. The author’s masterpiece hasn’t aged well, as it’s now seen as a misogynistic piece of work. And, what with its main character named Shriver and so little known about the writer, people can’t help but assume the character’s actions reflect his. In the novel, Shriver kills his wife; the real-life Shriver’s wife has been missing for years, so it stands to reason that…this is really of no consequence until a feminist poet, Blythe Brown (Aja Naomi King), who attacked the current Shriver publicly and was last seen in his room, goes missing. Suddenly, the faux author is the prime suspect.
This, as well as the notion that perhaps Shriver is the actual writer who has simply repressed his past, is mentioned but never fully developed. That Shriver has conversations with a more put-together version of himself throughout suggests that some mental trauma may be at play. However, this notion is dropped before it can reach dramatic fruition. The fact that characters who dislike Shriver change their mind about him so suddenly doesn’t old water. Brown’s reappearance in the third act and a nonsensical discovery she’s made are so ridiculous, my eyes nearly rolled out of my head.
Regrettably the film limps towards an anti-climactic conclusion, made all the more disappointing having witnessed a third act convergence of characters that had the potential to generate humorous and dramatic fireworks. Unfortunately, that indefinable touch which casts a spell over the viewer and elongates our suspension of disbelief, that has us eager to laugh or cry, is missing. That being said, I shouldn’t be too hard on “Shriver” or Maren. It’s absent from most films these days.