A LITTLE WHITE LIE: A Review Of The New Michael Shannon Comedy


Written and directed by Michael Maren, A Little White Lie is based on Chris Belden’s 2013 novel ShriverA Little White Lie. The film’s premise, part literary comedy, and part mistaken identity tale gone awry tries in vain to deliver the funny. However, more often than not, Maren’s film can’t get out of its own way, delivering one cliched scene after another. The film’s saving grace comes from its two lead performances. Michael Shannon, who delivers a deadpan and sympathetic lead performance, and the always high-wattage and charming Kate Hudson, who is a seasoned veteran of these types of films.   
A Little White Lie


Shriver (Michael Shannon), is a soft-spoken and “simple” handyman. He lives his life very much alone, with his cat, and somewhat content. Very much an introvert, Shriver has trouble dealing with people and the world in general. He’s also very much off the grid, carrying around his cash in a bag and having no legal form of ID. In typical tropes of this genre, Shriver is mistakenly invited to be the guest of honor at a collegiate literary festival. Against his better judgment, and at the coaxing of one of his only friends, Lenny (Mark Boone Junior), Shriver decides to attend. Little do the organizers know, they’re getting the wrong Shriver. He’s not the famous Faulkner-like recluse who disappeared over twenty years ago after writing a cult classic. He’s just a guy.
Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson), an English professor and the organizer of the literary festival is the one that writes to Shriver, in hopes of saving the struggling event from permanent closure. Simone believes that she’s getting a big-name author that will swoop in and save the day and the festival. What she’s in for is a rude awakening, literally. With no photos or interviews of the real Shriver ever to have been shown or taken, hilarity ensues. Not sure what he’s in for, the morbid and sullen Shriver decides to play along with the hoax, much to the delight of the adoring festival crowd that thinks he’s the actual Shriver who won the National Book Award twenty years earlier.
Shriver is adored by the members of the fictitious Acheron University’s literature department, especially the eccentric and horse-riding T. Wasserman (Don Johnson who fashioned his character after his close friend, Hunter S. Thompson). However, things start to take a turn when Shriver starts getting attacked for his decades-old masterpiece. Many at the University now see it as misogynistic. Further, since the novel’s main character’s name is also Shriver, they assume the author’s character is a reflection of the author himself. When feminist poet and Shriver hater, Blythe Brown (Aja Naomi King), goes missing, Shriver becomes the prime suspect.
A Little White Lie


A Little White Lie tends to fall into the trap that these types of quirky comedies fall into (too much exposition, one-dimensional characters, etc.), However, Michael Shannon’s pensive and twitchy performance elevates Maren’s film to a level that this type of paint-by-the-numbers story has no business belonging to. Shannon is an expert at playing the subdued and suffering underdog and that’s on full display here. As cranky and abrasive as he is here, we are rooting for him from the very first second he walks into the frame. Dating back to HBO’s brilliant Boardwalk Empire, Shannon has been an expert at playing vulnerable and flawed characters. 
The cast of A Little White Lie is solid and the performances are fine. The issue is that the film isn’t grounded in one theme or central storyline. Instead, it veers off into various subplots that go nowhere. Maren would have been better off trimming down some of the side characters and fleshing out the love story between Shriver and Simone, which feels forced. It would have been nice to spend another ten minutes with Don Johnson’s over-the-top Wasserman instead of jamming in a missing-person subplot. We could have also had more screen time for Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who portrays a Shriver “super-fan.” She turns in a kinetic and enthusiastic performance for the few brief scenes that she’s in.
Kate Hudson escapes A Little White Lie relatively unscathed. She doesn’t have much to do and her chemistry with Shannon is somewhat lacking. However, she’s still charming and magnetic, as always. Her back-and-forth banter with Shannon is enjoyable and it’s nice to watch two veteran actors cook. If we had ditched some of the subplots and focused more on Shriver and Simone, things might have turned out differently, for them, and the viewer. Zach Braff shows up in the film’s third act and that’s when A Little White Lie starts to go off the rails. The zany and madcap conclusion feels tacked on and you can see it coming a mile away.


A Little White Lie isn’t a bad film, it’s just not a very interesting one. Considering the wealth of talent at Maren’s disposal, the writer/director should have excised some of the peripheral characters and side stories and focused more on developing real chemistry between his two immensely talented leads. Kate Hudson shines in the handful of scenes that she’s in, but the actress is grossly underused. As a result, the chemistry just isn’t there between the two leads, and the film suffers for it. Don Johnson and the ageless and wonderful M. Emmet Walsh add some sparkle, but they simply don’t have enough screen time to really make a difference. It’s a shame because, with a better script and fewer sub-plots that add nothing to the overall story, A Little White Lie could have been a great film. 

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