There’s nothing little about the whopper at the heart of “A Little White Lie,” a comic drama about fame and impostor syndrome. The movie’s central conceit — pretending to be a renowned author, a janitor accepts an invitation to visit a liberal arts college — is rife with potential. But writer-director Michael Maren (whose 2014 debut “A Short History of Decay” also featured an author protagonist) sticks to the obvious, ignoring potential themes of blind celebrity worship and oblivious academia that would have added some satirical edge to this genial but dull movie.
Based on Chris Belden’s 2013 novel “Shriver,” “A Little White Lie” focuses on a handyman (Michael Shannon) leading a reclusive life in a rundown apartment building who receives an invitation from a university to be the guest of honor at their annual literary festival.
Simone (Kate Hudson), the organizer trying to protect the flailing event from budget cuts, thinks she is getting the legendary author Shriver, who wrote a famous novel 20 years ago and has never been seen since. Shriver, a J.D. Salinger-type recluse who went off the grid after the book’s publication and has never been photographed, would be a coup for the college and save the festival.
On a whim, Shriver accepts the invitation despite his conscience and his inability to function in the contemporary world (he has no credit cards, carries his cash in a bag of quarters and doesn’t even own a photo ID). Simone is excited to greet him, even though the man’s terse manner and Forrest-Gumpian naivety don’t line up with her expectations.
Shannon is the kind of transcendent, subtle actor who makes you believe in any character he’s playing, whether it’s General Zod trading punches with Superman in “Man of Steel” or, in this case, a man who makes no sense on a surface level. Shriver allows himself to be used by journalists seeking an exclusive interview; he stumbles disastrously into presentations of other authors at the fair for no apparent reason; and he’s not worried when a police detective (Jimmi Simpson) accuses him of having played a role in the disappearance of another visiting writer (Ana Naomi King).
For half of the movie, Shriver seems oblivious of the snowballing mess he’s inadvertently created, until his conscience (also played by Shannon) starts popping up in human form, à la Jiminy Cricket, telling him what he should and shouldn’t do. That’s a lazy and obvious trick to let us inside Shriver’s head — to tell us he’s not the entire blank he appears to be. Director Maren doesn’t trust Shannon to convey this inner monologue via his performance — just one example of the film’s plodding lack of wit or sophistication.
Don Johnson gives “A Little White Lie” a jolt whenever he’s onscreen as a university scamp who inexplicably believes in Shriver, even as the evidence of fraud continues to pile up. But his character isn’t important until the real Shriver (Zach Braff) shows up on campus, photo ID and documentation in tow, exposing the janitor’s scam. Hudson doesn’t get much to do other than roll her eyes in exasperation at Shriver’s lack of sophistication, at least until the movie makes time for a preposterous romantic interlude that should be studied in film schools as screenwriting mistakes to avoid.
Shot in a flat style by cinematographer Edd Lukas reminiscent of pre-streaming, made-for-network-TV movies, “A Little White Lie” unveils a twist in its final 30 minutes that finally picks up the sluggish pace, although the reveal makes zero sense if you spend two seconds thinking about it. Still, in a movie this dull, a preposterous whopper is preferable to the flavorless sludge that has preceded it.