A depressed alcoholic handyman masquerades as a reclusive writer while trying to woo a university professor. A Little White Lie attempts romance and comedic mockery of the literary world. It does neither well with an all-star cast that never clicks. The supporting characters are caricatures of academia and politically correct liberalism. They’re not believable as fawning writer wannabes enthralled by a supposed genius author. The premise never takes hold which leads to the film plodding along.
Professor Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson) is on a mission to save Acheron University’s 92nd literary festival. The school’s president (Kate Linder) sees no reason to continue funding an event that draws no significant names. Twenty years ago, C.R. Shriver wrote a blockbuster novel and vanished. A grainy black and white picture on the back of “Goat Time” serves as his only visual record. Simone’s department colleagues are stunned when she lands this truly big fish.
In New York City, building handyman C.R. Shriver (Michael Shannon) receives letters from Simone inviting him to Utah as the festival’s honored guest. Lenny (Mark Boone Junior), Shriver’s only friend, convinces him to accept the invitation. Maybe he’ll get a car or money. Shriver wallows in bourbon and misery since his wife left him. But he decides to embrace the charade and take the trip.
Shriver’s smitten by the beautiful Simone but quickly realizes he’s out of his league. Awkward encounters with a feminist poet (Aja Naomi King), hungry reporter (Benjamin King), and ardent fan (Da’vine Joy Randolph) upsets Shriver. What’s he doing here? He doesn’t even read books. He’ll surely be discovered as a fraud. But Shriver’s kindness, reticent nature, and soulful responses take the festival by storm. The imposter becomes an inspiration to everyone around him.
A Little White Lie has Shannon playing two versions of Shriver. He sees a darker, meaner, and truthful version of himself while drunk. This imaginary alter ego also appears when Shriver lies and digs himself a deeper hole. Shannon, an actor with intense presence, is more recognizable in this regard. The dichotomy between Shriver’s two personalities plays an important role in the resolve. It’s the film’s best part but fits awkwardly in the storyline.
We’re supposed to accept that Simone falls head over heels for a mysterious man that embodies her professional dream. She considers herself a bad writer and has given up on expressing herself. Along comes Shriver, who says she’s got talent, and voilà, confidence restored. Shriver must be the man for her. This is contrived celebrity worship. Shriver spends much of the film fumbling his interactions with her. The romance aspect is implausible. It also doesn’t help that Shannon and Hudson have little chemistry.
As a web writer, we are prime candidates for spoofing and satire. Don Johnson co-stars as the stereotypical lecherous professor ogling coeds. He rides a horse because he’s too drunk to drive. An out-of-the-blue antagonist (Zach Braff) makes little sense in the final act. None of the supporting characters are funny. A Little White Lie’s ridicule of writers, journalists, and teachers falls flat.