A Little White Lie
An uneven if supremely interesting dark comedy about a nobody who decides to impersonate a reclusive author starring Michael Shannon and Kate Hudson.
Sometimes, once in a great while, you encounter movies that aren’t particularly good but are damn interesting.
You’d think it’d be better to be generically good, but I see a lot of those movies and they don’t linger long in the memory. Meanwhile, I will catch a flawed but challenging film with offbeat performances or hypnotically strange tone that I can recall with remarkable clarity even years after.
“A Little White Lie” falls into this latter category. It’s a weird and whimsical flick about a drunken building superintendent who gets mistaken for a famously reclusive novelist, decides to attend a literary festival in his place and then unexpected things happen.
It’s ostensibly a comedy, though it stars Michael Shannon, a superbly gifted character actor who seems incapable of occupying any box Hollywood tires to carve out for him. Uproarious hilarity is not his thing. Lately he’s been cast in a lot of villainous roles (“Bullet Train,” “The Shape of Water”) that seem to fit his craggy, looming presence.
Here he plays Shriver, a middle-aged nobody who takes care of a rat-trap apartment building in New York City between drinking bouts. He’s extremely withdrawn and moody, but when he gets a letter in the mail inviting him to a literary festival at (fictional) Acheron University in Texas, his interest is piqued and, after some waffling, decides to go.
He shares a name with C.R. Shriver, a J.D. Salinger-type author who wrote a hugely successful first and only novel, “Goat Time,” about 20 years ago. The real Shriver refused all awards and public appearances, and the only known photo of him doesn’t even show his face. The imposter Shriver is enticed partially by the offer of a prize — maybe a car, he wonders? — but really the chance to just go somewhere and pretend to be somebody else for a while and not his crummy old self.
Kate Hudson plays Simone Cleary, the professor who had the idea to invite Shriver. In truth the university’s festival has been circling the drain for the last few years and this was her big idea to create some buzz to revive it. She’s a writer herself, though like a lot of college professors pretty much the only people who buy her books are her students assigned to read them. A nice racket, that.
“I let my work speak for itself… and no one listens,” she confesses.
Our Shriver soon regrets his choice. Even a chance meeting on the plane with a wannabe writer, Delta Jones (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), turns into a painful ordeal of awkwardness and guilt. He’s haunted by a taunting alter ego that shows up from time to time to lambast him for the ruse, knowing it’s only a matter of time before he’s found out and humiliated.
A bumbling beginning of a romance with Simone only adds to his torment, as Shriver knows he’d only have a chance with this smart, amazing woman if he were actually the author in question.
It’s the ultimate exploration of imposter syndrome, the common feeling that we’re unworthy of our position or accomplishments. Except in this case, Shriver really is an imposter…
Or is he?
In the strangest wrinkle from writer/director Michael Maren, Shriver begins scribbling some prose on legal pads, as part of the gig is he must do a reading of some new material. He sits in on a class with grad students and, somewhere in between his usual halting speech and long pauses, says a few things that might actually help young writers. An auditorium panel includes a musing about the blurry line between imagination and reality that results in an oddly poignant moment.
Now Shriver’s fever has really crested. Is it possible, he wonders, that he actually is Shriver, and somehow misplaced his memories of that former life? It seems a ridiculous proposition — where’d all his money go? But then why is this mush-mouthed loser able to summon moments of rapturous lucidity so like that fearsome wunderkind who wrote “Goat Time?”
I was ensorcelled by the odd perambulations of Shriver’s journey. In the middle of a somewhat turgid romcom plot, Shannon delivers this haunting portrayal of a man walking a knife’s edge of sanity and self-doubt.
Then there’s the rest of the movie… which is, well, a mix of the mundane and the lame.
Aja Naomi King plays Blythe Brown, an angry Black feminist poet who attacks the rampant nihilism and misogyny of Shriver’s book, but seems intrigued by the truly vulnerable man she encounters. Don Johnson turns up as T. Wasserman, another professor and self-styled cowboy who drinks a lot and rides around the college on horseback, the sort of guy who has a very studied way of not taking anything seriously.
M. Emmet Walsh is an elderly professor who’s given little to do but show up and spout an occasional quip. Wendy Malick has a cameo as a wealthy benefactor of the festival who assumes that bedding the guest author is included with her contribution, in a sequence that devolves straight into cheap sitcom setups.
“A Little White Lie” is a half-baked movie, one that proposes really intriguing questions and then fumbles at the answers. The romance between Shriver and Simone feels stitched-together for the purposes of selling a movie rather than telling a story. It’s got a bunch of characters included only for their ability to display quirkiness.
And yet, the bones of the story about a man who only begins to find his true self after impersonating somebody else has a lot of meat on it worth biting into. This movie’s a mess, but an audacious and original one I won’t soon forget.