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'The Good Liar': Helen Mirren and Ian McKellen Romp in a Hitchcockian Mystery

He's a British knight, she's a dame, and their first film together is royally entertaining

Rating: R

Run time: 1 hour 50 minutes

Stars: Ian McKellen, Helen Mirren, Russell Tovey

Director: Bill Condon

Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier was a lightweight prizefight compared to the acting bout between Helen Mirren, 74, vs. Ian McKellen, 80, in their first film together — the Hitchcock-style mystery The Good Liar, whose director, Bill Condon, won an Oscar for his last McKellen film, Gods and Monsters. The Times of London calls Mirren and McKellen “the new Hepburn and Tracy,” but they're more like a grownup Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Mirren's Betty is a gorgeous retired Oxford prof who's saved up $3.6 million but has no clue how to invest money, nor how to decorate. Her house, in a dull suburb, looks like it got hit by a bland grenade — everything is as drab and impersonal as she is bright and sprightly. Her date Roy (McKellen) says visiting her place is like “being smothered in beige."

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But he doesn't say it to her face. When courting Betty, the dashing and ultra-cultured Roy is the epitome of British politeness, with a backspin of wit. He's charmingly open about the little white lies he included in his profile on the Distinctive Dating website, where they met, and jests that he'd thought online dating was “a system for matching the delusional with the hopeless,” aware that she has the same fear. And they both know they're not getting any younger. (At first, the film plays like a grownup rom-com: You've Got Mail, but Not Much Time.)

Betty, though, is too self-possessed to be desperate, and Roy is in fact a natty rapscallion, a con man who rips off innocent widows and crooked businessmen. After his date with Betty, he goes straight to an office lair where he and his partner in crime — Downton Abbey's Jim Carter, 71, still bearing a few ragged remnants of Mr. Carson's dignity — hoodwink and rob a greedy mark in a scene reminiscent of Annette Bening's first masterpiece, The Grifters. But Roy nets just a small, six-figure sum, so he pours all he's got into wooing Betty for seven figures. Betty's too recently widowed to want a physical relationship (which Roy would like, along with the cash), so he cunningly fakes a bum knee acting up, knowing kindly Betty will invite him to stay over until it heals. If only Roy can somehow neutralize Betty's suspicious grandson (Russell Tovey), he'll be set for life and Betty will be on the street!

But just as we start to dread Betty's downfall — especially after we see Roy murder someone with unexpectedly Bond-like athletic aplomb — we notice that she may not be telling him absolutely everything about herself. When her grandson asks Roy rude questions and a flicker of amusement crosses her face, is she mocking the youngster or Roy? And why is Roy so reluctant to go on holiday in Berlin, while she is so keen on it?

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The answers turn out to be remarkably improbable, not remotely up to the standards of the best of Hitchcock, though better than the worst. Even so, it's an entertaining, flashback-fueled finale, and the stars are having such a blast the fun is quite catching. I can't wait for them to do another movie together, and I'd watch this one again right now.

And, it should be said, the social problem it addresses is important. AARP recently talked to McKellen and Mirren about the film; they said they're happy to make a movie that highlights elder fraud, and that AARP's Fraud Watch Network is there to track, report and thwart scammers. But they're even more thrilled that the issue is wrapped in a delightful, old-fashioned entertainment package, with roles for older actors that do not involve illness or frailty or dementia. The characters in The Good Liar have power and agency; when physical woes do afflict, it's a fake affliction affected by a devious person with all his wits intact, if not his morals.

AARP critic Tim Appelo was Amazon’s entertainment editor and a critic for The Nation, Hollywood Reporter, EW, People, MTV, LA Weekly, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times.

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