The Lie is a sturdy directorial debut from actor Joshua Leonard that could equally be titled The Argument . Based on a bitterly funny novella by the great American novelist TC Boyle, The Lie concerns the misadventures of two married, thirty-something Generation X-ers on the cusp of a premature mid-life crisis. Leonard, who unlike Boyle is part of the demographic Boyle's original story depicts, has a different and more hopeful view of his generation's options, and the handful of Boyle fanatics who know the original (of which I am one) may view Leonard's softer tone and more affirmative outcome with skepticism, or as a gesture at commerciality. They shouldn't judge too harshly though, because as a movie The Lie works on its own terms, and grapples with issues (like parenting and the real adjustments relationships demand over time) the darker and more corrosive novella chose not to touch. Depending on how ready Generation X is for Big Chill-like self-reflection, The Lie could easily strike an arthouse chord.
Lonnie (Leonard) is a video editor who works as an assistant in factory-like conditions for a crazy boss. The environment is oppressive, the work mind-numbingly dull; a humorous montage of Lonnie logging an endless series of ketchup drips defines the soul-crushing parameters of Lonnie's professional world. Things aren't great at home either—there's a new baby in the house, and Lonnie's wife (the always great Jess Wexler from Teeth), who once shared his bohemian worldview, is mutating into a careerist under the economic stress of parenthood, and turning into a stranger before Lonnie's eyes.
One day, Lonnie just can't walk through the door to his workplace. Instead, he phones in from the parking lot to ask for a day off. His boss is apoplectic, so Lonnie tells a white lie: "The baby is sick," he says, making every parent in the audience clutch their throat. It's a transgression, though Lonnie, in his quiet desperation, doesn't see it that way yet. A frequently hilarious downward spiral begins, one that ends in a different place than Boyle's story did, though Leonard flirts with Boyle's darkness before being gently rebuffed. Some may have a hard time sympathizing with Lonnie before he starts facing up to his actions. But in the end, Leonard's Lie offers an earned affirmation, made all the more believable by Leonard and Weixler's detailed comedic creations.
Leonard was probably wise to amend the source material and to expand and develop Boyle's secondary characters. As a story, The Lie is every bit as locked in the voice of an unreliable narrator as something like Poe's The Telltale Heart, and that means everyone else is colored by Lonnie's corroded perceptions in a way that a photographic medium like a movie would have a hard time matching. It's the disconnect between Lonnie's rationalizations about his life and the events he's describing that makes the novella such a terrifyingly funny read, and while Leonard flirts with this approach, he's ultimately more interested in the unexplored pathways in Lonnie's predicament: the quiet compromises people make and the hard time the not quite young have in today's America noticing when they've grown up.
In addition to fine and nuanced turns from Leonard and Wexler, actor/filmmaker Mark Webber gets a lot of laughs as Lonnie's Winnebago-dwelling, musican pal Tank, a would-be entrepreneur and seeming acid casualty who eventually emerges as the movie's moral voice. Solid and unassuming cinematography from Benjamin Kasulke benefits the performers by mostly staying out of their way. In its unassuming way, The Lie is a noteworthy directing debut.
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Cast: Joshua Leonard, Jess Weixler, Mark Webber, Jane Adams, Alia Shawkat, Kelli Garner and Gerry Bednob
Director: Joshua Leonard
Screenwriters: Joshua Leonard, Jeff Feuerzeig, Mark Webber, Jess Weixler
Producer: Mary Pat Bentel
Running time: 82 min
Release date: Unset