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The Good Liar **1/2

A spiffy throwback to mid-budget cat-and-mouse thrillers from the '90s, this crisply paced and elegantly mounted studio programmer handles its twists and turns with aplomb, until heavy-duty subject matter proves to be more than director Bill Condon can handle.

Is it worth $10? Yes

It's hard to believe that Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren never acted opposite each other on the big screen before “The Good Liar.” The veteran British thespians have shown little sign of slowing down, so it's surprising it took this long for their paths to cross. The good news is that fans who are excited about this pairing will find the actors have selected a star vehicle sturdy enough to support their seismic screen presence.

There's bad news as well, but we'll get to that later. Suffice it to say, director Bill Condon (“Gods and Monsters,” “Dreamgirls”) assumes the Hitchcockian duties of adapting Nicholas Searle's novel by slyly wrapping its cat-and-mouse trappings in the comforting veneer of lonely seniors searching for a romantic connection in pre-Brexit London.

Even though the filmmaker, working from a screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher (“The Duchess,” “Mr. Holmes”), hints from the outset not to trust anything you see, the first face-to-face encounter between Roy Courtnay (McKellen) and Betty McLeish (Mirren), at a posh restaurant, suggests the movie is more interested in getting to know the characters than to start digging through what secrets they might be hiding. It's equally engaged in the deceptions we use to protect ourselves from the sting of rejection than in the whoppers it has in store for us.

Because Roy, as Condon reveals from early on, is not the harmless Mr. Lonelyhearts he pretends to be. He and his “business” partner Vincent (“Downton Abbey's” Jim Carter) sweet-talk gullible investors into get-rich-quick schemes, only to pull the carpet from the unsuspecting saps at the eleventh hour. When the duo get wind that kind and gentle Betty, a retired Oxford professor, is worth millions, they start salivating like Pavlov's dogs. And so the con is on.

But Betty, who puts up Roy in the guest room of her pervasively beige suburban home after some trouble with his knee (yeah, mm-hmm), makes it clear she's nobody's fool. She wields a razor-sharp nonsense meter that matches her generosity. There's also the matter of her grandson Steven (Russell Tovey from HBO's “Looking” and “Years and Years”), who smells a rat from the get-go and treats the old geezer with barely reined-in contempt.

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Bolstered by yet another solid music score by Carter Burwell, the narrative glides with an economy of storytelling that owes as much to Claude Chabrol than it does to Hitchcock, with a sleight-of-hand wit that also recalls the 1990s work of Neil Jordan. (Between this and Bong Joon-ho's potent social satire “Parasite,” Chabrol is witnessing quite the resurgence as an aesthetic influence.) Condon and Hatcher gradually uncover more layers to this dangerous game Roy is playing, but they also take pains to flesh out both protagonists' concerns and motivations to an extent that, for a considerable amount of its running time, “The Good Liar” is a refreshingly character-driven piece. Intriguingly, it's also invested in how much finances can shape a burgeoning relationship. It even includes a scene showing Betty, Roy and Vincent sitting on a table, crunching numbers.

Those numbers eventually assume a more conventional role as a key plot point, but what threatens to upset the movie's balance of character developent and incident is when it opts to perform some climactic rug-pulling of its own. By waiting so long to delve into the characters' personal trauma, it forces Condon to work overtime to cover a sizable chunk of story without providing enough screen time for it to resonate with viewers. And thus “The Good Liar's” final dose of hard truths places a dramatic weight the film is unable to carry. It undermines the magnitude of its revelations by shoehorning them into the tidy confines of a twisty thriller, and that leads to inevitable whiplash.

By this point, however, McKellen and Mirren have shown they're more than capable of keeping up with the film's hairpin turns, even when they're too abrupt for the movie's well-being. Condon's sound filmmaking instincts, enhanced by his leads' effortless star quality, conspire to keep this undemanding potboiler afloat. There's nothing groundbreaking about this airtight matinee fodder, but part of what makes this Warner Bros./New Line release somewhat noteworthy is that it's attempting to court the target audience that arguably no longer goes to the movies on a regular basis. This kind of mid-level studio programmer is increasingly an endangered species in our current movie landscape, and as such it merits championing, warts and all. If multiplexes were restaurants, think of “The Good Liar” as a safe yet satisfying menu item that won't upset the tummy. It's the house chardonnay of 2019 suspense titles.

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