Michael Shannon’s ‘A Little White Lie’ Is Not A Comedy

I didn’t go into A Little White Lie expecting a thoughtful, Oscar-winning commentary on imposter syndrome and the blurry nature of reality for those immersed in the literary quality. And thank goodness for that, because 100 minutes later, I had no idea what I had just watched.

Going by the film’s trailer (and anticipatory comments), one would be forgiven for thinking the movie was a rom-com. The premise is rom-com-y enough – a reclusive handyman named Shriver (Michael Shannon) is mistakenly invited by English professor Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson) to the fictional Acheron University’s once-famous literary fest. Having nothing better to do than stare at the watermark on his ceiling, he decides to accept the invitation as C.R. Shriver, an author who disappeared after writing his celebrated (and only) novel Goat Time. Cue hijinks.

Or not? Sadly, writer-director Michael Maren’s second feature is neither romantic nor a comedy. That is unfortunate, considering the fact that the premise and the cast had so much potential. Accompanying big names Shannon and Hudson is Don Johnson as Professor Wasserman – a mostly drunk but genial presence. The supporting cast is a veritable who’s who of ‘hey, that’s that person from that thing!’, including Peyton List, Aja Naomi King, and Wendie Malick.

Da'Vine Joy Randolph as Shriver superfan Delta gives audiences another reason to root for her rise to the mainstream, while Zach Braff’s appearance at the end delivers brief moments of levity.

Expectations Dashed

However, almost every other department lets the film down. The cinematography and color grading render the overall look rather flat and early 2000s-esque. Alex Wurman’s score is listless and uninspired, adding little to the general feel of the scenes. The writing is clunky at best, and one only realizes the existence of some jokes in hindsight.

It is a generally agreed upon fact that Michael Shannon is a stellar actor, but Shriver’s character seems to have no personality besides mastering the perfect blend of looking lost and looking frustrated. And it is not like Shannon cannot pull off satirical comedy – he was brilliant as Walt Thrombey in Knives Out.

The script also attempts to shoehorn a romantic plot line between Shriver and Hudson’s Simone, despite featuring absolutely no buildup or chemistry between the characters whatsoever. It should have been easy, considering how a dressed down Kate Hudson glows throughout the film, but it is almost painful to watch the two kiss after what seemed like a solid half hour of Shriver just reading aloud from a book. I mean, whatever works for them?

The tonal changes are also rather jarring. The film starts off looking like a fluffy identity swap comedy, and then suddenly there are two Michael Shannons talking to each other accompanied by minor chords in the background. Is this a mental health deep dive now? Then we’re back to Don Johnson using a horse to travel across campus. But wait – now there are surreal visions of characters that appear exactly twice in the movie and do nothing for the plot at all.

Oh, the Whiplash

Even though the situation seems to escalate rapidly, there is never a credible sense of threat around the potential unraveling of Shriver’s pretenses.

And then there are the leaps in logic, which could have been overlooked had the film not taken itself so seriously at times. Shriver’s novel Goat Time is repeatedly touted as one of the greatest literary works ever, while simultaneously being criticized by multiple characters for being overtly misogynist. If the latter was true, why are people so excited about meeting Shriver? Why is the forward-thinking Prof. Cleary written as being in love with him? Why is there a closeup shot of a supposedly handwritten note that is 110% a printed piece of paper? Did nobody have two minutes to write a note by hand?

It’s all rather confusing.

When judging the film and its many continuity errors, however, one must also take into consideration the fact that filming was disrupted by the pandemic about three weeks in, and could resume only 400 days later. What is more, the idea itself had been in development hell since 2017, and the entire cast list underwent an overhaul within this time period.

Michael Maren has a prolific portfolio of international journalism backing his foray into filmmaking. There is no doubt that he can prove himself in the field, given more chances. For now, however, A Little White Lie just isn’t it.

In theaters and on demand March 3.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.