Deceit runs amok in writer/director Michael Maren’s “A Little White Lie,” a comedy set in a humble (and fictional) corner of the literary world where an everyday guy manages to fool everyone around him that he is the reclusive, one-hit-wonder author of a much celebrated and controversial book. But the film’s biggest con doesn’t come from this imposter protagonist so much as the messy script and direction that squanders an amusing-enough premise, and the apathetic performances from A-listers in search of a purpose other than fulfilling a contractual obligation.
In the lead is Michael Shannon, one of the greatest American actors working today with a gaze as sharp as a razor blade and a distinct, angular face he knows how to flex and soften to both intimidating and powerful effect. Here though, Shannon looks tentative and lost as writer C. R. Shriver, or more accurately, a Shriver who shares nothing with the famous author other than a last name. Part of Shannon’s apprehension is perhaps by design—after all, his character is a New York handyman and not the enigmatic genius he pretends to be who gave the world The Goat Time, a book fiercely feted for vague-at-best reasons. But Shannon’s adrift disposition here feels more see-through than dramatically purposeful. While he delivers his lines softly and distantly, one often feels that he’s pondering how and why he ended up in this movie.
Still, we tag along when Shannon’s down-on-his-luck Shriver accepts an invitation from a modest Midwestern literary festival of a struggling university called Acheron, an institution that mistakes him for the real deal. The annual affair is organized by Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson, lightyears apart from her movie-star charisma in “Glass Onion”), a professor and writer who believes she’s finally scored big and convinces her college’s skeptics that their once-relevant festival is still worth their efforts and precious dollars. The drill is quite predictable—the fake Shriver tries to blend in as best as he can, dragged from one intellectual debate to the next stuffy cocktail party, all noted on a schedule he somehow refuses to read. But he barely makes sense as he checks off his itinerary alongside the likes of Cleary, the happy-go-lucky writer Wassermen (Don Johnson), a superfan named Delta (the delightful Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a nosy journalist (Benjamin King), and another professor played by M. Emmet Walsh. All these escapades are supposed to be funny … I think. But the humor of the film never lands.
One of the many issues of “A Little White Lie”—adapted from Chris Belden’s novel Shriver—is the film’s inability to define why Shriver has become so famous with a single book in the first place. During a Q&A session with Aja Naomi King’s feminist author Blythe Brown, this question especially rises to the surface—many in the audience, along with Brown herself, seem to think of Shriver as a sexist author of a book filled with offensive language. So why does Acheron invite him if his prose has not aged well? And why does the liberal-minded Cleary still think so highly of him if The Goat Time is that problematic? But before we can consider these questions, the film shifts gears with Brown’s disappearance and Shriver becoming a prime suspect in Detective Karpas’ (Jimmi Simpson) investigation.
Another imprecise examination in “A Little White Lie” is the film’s stance on both the pretentiousness of the literary world and the ingrained imposter syndrome all creators battle with at one point. With such a thin story and caricature-adjacent characters, it’s anyone’s guess what Maren’s trying to say about such ambitious inquiries. Not helping the matters are some of his stylistic choices: the most shocking thing about a second Shannon showing up out of nowhere to represent Shriver’s inner voice is how trite this idea feels. Also lackluster are the endlessly searching score of Alex Wurman—a jazzy beat that neither meshes with nor elevates the film’s tone—and the film’s exceedingly crisp look, reminding one that even an average TV episode these days manage to feel more cinematic. It would have been one thing if we could at least root for the inevitable romance between Hudson and Shannon’s characters—but with both actors delivering indifferent performances, a palpable chemistry never materializes between them.
The story’s got a double-twist up its sleeve, a resolution that features an amusing-enough Zach Braff in a forgettable cameo. But it’s sadly an annoying one, serving no purpose other than making “A Little White Lie” even more uninteresting, to tell you a little cold-hard truth.