REVIEW: The Lie Explores the Self-Defeat of Committing by Halves — But Only By Half

Movieline Score:

First-time director Joshua Leonard's The Lie stretches the truth of its source material -- an obsidian fragment from author T.C. Boyle, published by the New Yorker in 2008 -- until its every glint is polished to a self-affirming glow. There's a dark crackle to Boyle's first-person account of a young man compressed to the point of fracture by the drudgery of his work as a tape logger at a film production house and the shackling disappointment of his domestic lot: He has a law student wife and an infant at home. Unable to face another day at the digital mine, the young man's avoidant, off-white fibbing gives way to an inky whopper, and his sins soon yield a shopping bag full of money. If two decades of Coen brothers movies have taught us anything, it's this: As good as a gun, that thing's going to go off.

The short story ends in a streak offstage. The Lie has trouble narrowing itself into the same nervy tone, and expands outward instead, away from character or aesthetic and into the narrative of booh-joi redemption handled so nimbly in Lost in America. Leonard -- the Humpday actor last seen playing a God-fearing husband to Vera Farmiga in her directing debut, Higher Ground -- adapted Boyle's story (the three lead actors share writing credit along with Jeff Feuerzeig) and cast himself in the lead as Lonnie, now a thirty-something editor at a Los Angeles commercial house. Lonnie's wife, Clover (Jessica Weixler), is a lawyer who early on in the film announces that she's considering a job offer from a (gasp!) drug company.

Clover drops the news at a dinner party attended by an affluent couple and their less fancy but very mobile friend Tank (Mark Webber). An old musician friend of Lonnie's, Tank is perfecting an edible skin care line in his beach-side trailer, where there's always a laundry line of gitch flapping free in the coastal winds. The dinner party, which follows an opening scene of Lonnie laying down the symptoms of modern life (anxious, joyless, not sleeping, hates job) to hustle a medicinal marijuana prescription out of a shrink (Jane Adams), presents the couple's options: Batten down, sell out, and start saving for that designer stroller, or live an attenuated, gitch-flapping life on the fringe.

For one of them, at least, the choice is clear. Hectored by his foul-mouthed boss (Gerry Bednob) for slacker infractions, Lonnie concocts a lie about his six-month-old daughter's health to get out of a day at work. After a leisurely breakfast he shows up at Tank's trailer to record that demo they've been talking about for God knows how long -- and it's a soul crusher, all right. Home in time to dice up some mea culpa mango chutney for his wife (he did not take the news of her job prospect well), Lonnie is calmed momentarily -- until, that is, his alarm clock goes off again the next morning.

What happens next sets off a cycle of potentially black comic events that slowly elude Leonard's grasp. Forget the dubious timing of grumbling about paid employment when 10 percent of us should be so lucky; earnest portent creeps into the handling of Lonnie's big lie, so that the ghastliness of it comes off as neither comic nor tragic -- more like one of those coerced confessions you hear about but never quite understand. There also seems to be little awareness of the extent to which the alternatives Lonnie and Clover float for themselves -- lying in a tomato patch 4ever or, more seriously, "jumping in a car and joining an advocacy group in Portland" -- are not an escape from bourgeois ideals but an extension of them into a more comfy fit. Embedded in The Lie is a sharp look at the moral limbo of a complacent life, the self-defeat of committing by halves, the self-interest of false equivalencies -- but only the shallowest attempts are made to chip its themes out.

It's the shallowness of the explicit, particularly when it comes to Lonnie's mealy outbursts and Leonard's tendency to hang onto favored shots until they ossify. (Cinematographers Ben Kasulke and Brigitta Csiki develop a striking contrast between scenic LA and its smudgy interiors.) Weixler has a changeable beauty and natural, responsive quality that is ill-served by this tendency; though you can hardly blame the director for leaning on her expressive face in critical moments, those extra beats turn performance into portraiture. "We're allowed to change things, right?" Lonnie asks Clover, after his nuclear cloud of deceit begins to clear. As my generation begins telling these familiar stories, it's a question I find myself asking more and more.

Follow Michelle Orange on Twitter.

Follow Movieline on Twitter.