The title of The Lie is not a case of false advertising. This movie centers around a huge one. Monstrous, even. One of those terrible, horrible, no good, very bad types that, in real life, fly just a hair underneath unforgivably reprehensible. In a typical comedy atmosphere, this is a set-up for wacky hijinks. As the mumblecore-ish indie comedy this film is, it's instead an excuse for muted caricatures of liberal idealism to naval gaze about things like responsibility, growing up, and finding balance in life. That can be funny to watch, as numerous low-key comedies like this one have proved in the past. Unfortunately, The Lie is a little too much like those various indie comedies of yore, offering no fresh insight nor fresh jokes throughout its sparse running time.
More catastrophically, The Lie never finds a way to make you feel much empathy for its characters, to the point where when that big, honking fib does finally appear, you don't so much hope for the sap at the center of it to find his way toward redemption as you just kind of wish he'd drop dead.
It's not that he's an awful man. As portrayed by Joshua Leonard (who you may remember as Josh from The Blair Witch Project, or from his other various indie projects of late, like Humpday and Shark Night 3D), the family man who tells this terrible lie is more exhausted and frustrated than anything else. His day job as an editor of bad TV commercials belies his younger days beliefs of more radical pursuits, like performing music and milquetoast activism. His wife (Jess Weixler, managing to mostly make us forget that she played that girl in Teeth) suffers from similar ennui, but is better adjusted to suburban life and parenthood than her other half. When she announces during a get-together with friends that she's planning on taking a job with a pharmaceutical company, the looks of scorn and shock from her purported friends suggests that not everyone in her life is as willing to "sell out."
Leonard's way of subverting the drudgery of everyday life is to start skipping work, which sends his boss (Gerry Bednob, the angry Indian fellow from The 40 Year Old Virgin, more or less doing the same schtick) into apoplectic rage. He initially squirms his way around his boss' anger by claiming his six-month old daughter is sick and needs to go to the hospital, so he can instead play hooky and record music with his best bud (Mark Webber), a sort of sagely stoner who lives in an RV by the beach. The next day, when his boss refuses to accept the same excuse again, Leonard takes things a huge step further, by actually proclaiming that his daughter has died.
Uh oh. In one of the few moments of genuine feeling in The Lie, you see immediately after Leonard has blurted these words out that he immediately regrets it, but nonetheless, the damage is done. He somehow has to spend the next few days ducking coworkers and figuring out how to navigate this miserable situation he's created for himself. Unfortunately, the way in which he does this is exactly what's wrong with The Lie. While the more low-key feel of the movie is intended to give it some manner of realism, too often that groundedness gives way to tedium. Long stretches of the film involve Leonard doing things like wandering around an old carnival with his daughter in her carrier, or slinking into a medical marijuana depository to have strained, generally unfunny conversations with the wannabe artist who works behind the counter. Other times, he just talks, lengthily, to his wife, about their life together, and what it all means, man.
The story for The Lie was adapted from a T.C. Boyle short story that originally appeared in the New Yorker. Those origins likely lend some reason to why so much of The Lie feels like filler. The endless, meandering shots of half-interesting conversations and Leonard presumably thinking about things do little to offset the only periodically existent comedy. Case in point, a scene where Leonard shows Weixler a song he and Webber recorded. The entire joke of this song is that it's called "Soul Crusher," and that it is perhaps, just maybe, about his wife and family life. That joke appears roughly 20 seconds into the song, and yet we sit through the entire three-minute track while watching Weixler's bemused/horrified face. It feels less like an artistic choice than an excuse to up the run time on the film. The follow-up sex scene offers roughly the same feeling.
It's not that The Lie is disingenuous (heh), it's that it just doesn't have much of any note to say. Yes, sacrificing your youthful ideals for the sake of family and responsibilities is hard. Many films have tackled this very subject to varying effect. Leonard's film (he also directs) has nothing unique to offer on this subject, save for a premise that feels like the stuff of Jim Carrey comedies, except dialed down several bong rips.
There are good performances in The Lie. Weixler in particular is very good as a wife mostly unawares of her husband's foul deed, until she's extremely aware of it. And Webber is also solid as a character whose organic lifestyle leanings border on comic relief, rather than anything remotely authentic. But these two performances are largely lost in a film that barely seems to have a sense of who either character really is. And by the time it finally gets around to dishing out consequences for that terrible thing, it goes with one of the more lackluster cop-outs I've seen in a movie in a good long while, a solution less heartwarming than it is vaguely unsettling. Not that you'll care too terribly much given all the mediocrity that comes before it, but still.