Editor's note: This review was originally published at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. "The Lie" opens Friday.
The problem with "The Lie," actor Joshua Leonard's first solo directing credit, is that it plays like two movies at odds with each other. A basic domestic drama with flashes of light comedy, the movie feels both cautionary and sincere about the prospects of running away from debilitating mistakes. While intermittently engaging and well-acted, Leonard's direction fails to inject much life into this watered-down scenario.
Based on a short story by T.C. Boyle, the plot features Leonard as wannabe musician Lonnie and his law school wife Clover (Jess Weixler), whose dreams of living a wild life together have been interrupted by the unexpected arrival of a baby girl. Having settled into a regular 9-to-5 routine, Lonnie constantly evades responsibilities, coming up with excuses not to attend work while jamming with his less troubled pal (Mark Webber). The titular development takes place when Lonnie abruptly tells his boss that his daughter has died, resulting in an outpour of support from oblivious co-workers and friends. Attempting to hide his abrupt verbal snafu from his wife, Lonnie looks like a scared animal in search of shelter, but the plot barely progresses from that point.
Leonard, whose last great performance was the similarly bumbling man-child in Lynn Shelton's "Humpday," creates a contemplative mood that allows the two main characters to babble on about the changes in their home life and whether they need to shake things up. There's just not enough wit or insight here to justify the constant soul searching. Programmed in Sundance's NEXT section, which is often seen as heralding emerging new talents, "The Lie" mainly provides a reminder that Leonard knows how to act around fairly average material, including his own. Weixler also delivers, although the movie positions her in a secondary role that only requires her presence at certain key moments.
To be fair, Leonard and Weixler are entirely convincing as a couple whose marriage is on the rocks. When Clover uncovers Lonnie's made-up excuse, the two get a chance to show the extent of their skills in close-up. However, the movie regularly suffers from pacing problems that hamper its prospects for a lasting emotional impact. Is Lonnie's plight a drama, a dark comedy, or both? Leonard can't seem to nail that one down. "The Lie" is divided against itself, just like the irredeemable character at its center.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Screen Media Films will open "The Lie" on Friday at select theaters. Fans of T.C. Boyle may want to check it out, but the lack of star power and mixed critical reactions may keep it from gaining much of a following.
criticWIRE grade: B-