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Is Michael Shannon a romantic leading man? ‘A Little White Lie’ thinks so.

When movie fans today think about the term “screwball comedy” – if they think about it at all – they’re more likely to imagine something that fell out of the Wayback Machine. Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Ryan O’Neal and Barbra Streisand. Eddie Murphy and Halle Berry. Or, for some serious screwballing, Divine and Tab Hunter. Movie characters who fall in love in 2023 may make fools of themselves, but rarely for laughs. For the most part that particular subgenre belongs to another more innocent era. Or so it would seem. Michael Maren, writer-director of the new comedy A Little White Lie, begs to differ. 

Filmmaker Maren, a former war correspondent and author whose only previous film was the 2014 Alzheimer’s comedy (huh?) A Short History of Decay, faces two challenges with his new one, A Little White Lie. The first challenge is creating a screwball comedy with a literary premise. The second is his casting of Michael Shannon, one of the screen’s most dependable portrayers of mean, violent and felonious characters, as the romantic male lead. Surprise: Maren and Shannon succeed after all, with help from Kate Hudson and an energetic cast of players.

C. R. Shriver (Shannon) is a solitary man who lives with his cat in New York City and works as a super in a grungy apartment house. He also drinks whiskey to excess and spends too much time staring at a wet spot on his bedroom ceiling. It reminds him of his wife, who dumped him. By the sort of curious coincidence that screwball flicks are made of, Shriver – a vague, slow-talking working stiff who keeps a diary but admits he never reads books — has the same name as a celebrated reclusive novelist, a former bestselling sensation who hasn’t been seen in public for the last 20 years. 

So it’s a surprise when stupefied janitor Shriver receives a letter from a university, inviting him to attend an upcoming literary festival, all expenses paid. The event is being organized by Simone (Hudson), a faculty member who’s convinced that landing the notoriously shy writer can save the university’s reputation. On a dare from a fellow sot (Mark Boon Junior), the “wrong Shriver” accepts the proposition and flies to Southern California for the festival, anticipating prize money.

By the unwritten laws of entertainment marketing, audiences should fully expect Shannon’s Shriver and Hudson’s Simone to fall in love, despite an array of goofball obstacles and clichéd caricatures. Maren’s screenplay does not fail on that point. After their meet-cute in the airport bar they circle each other warily at campus functions, she nurturing her lit-crit fantasies and him mostly oblivious, but charmingly so. New territory for Shannon, routinely perky for Hudson.

There are character nuggets reminiscent of the work of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, Charles Bukowksi or Whit Stillman. The imitation literary lion gets ridiculed by a feminist author (Aja Naomi King) and her companion (Romy Byrne), and obligingly refuses to defend himself. A persistent reporter (Benjamin King) asks the “celebrity” embarrassing questions. Sensing a trophy, literary groupie Dr. Bedrosian, a rich gynecologist (played in a lather by Wendie Malick), wrestles the A-list prey into her bedroom. Later, a snoopy detective materializes. 

Meanwhile, Simone’s doubts add up – is she being hustled? The only characters solidly in our guy’s corner are fellow writer Delta Jones (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and the university’s two emeritus hippie profs (scruffy Don Johnson and owlish M. Emmet Walsh).  

Shannon fans aren’t used to seeing him as such a pushover, strolling around campus in a daze, shrugging off the double takes and anxious admirers. So what if Hudson and Shannon seem spectacularly mismatched? They’ll get used to each other. The culture-war jokes fly fast and furiously, but when the faux-prose-stylist stands up on stage and ad-libs metaphorically he’s believably endearing in a throwback, flannel-lined 1980s-sitcom way. So is A Little White Lie

In theaters

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