[This review is a reprint of my review from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. The Lie opens today in limited release.]
Depicting marital infidelity is too easy a conflict. Warring couples have been done to death and they tend to hit the same predictable notes of anger, betrayal, and sadness but usually you don’t care because the film always makes sure you know that the cheater is bad and the other party deserves our sympathy. I find it far more challenging to write convincing couples who struggle with the work a relationship requires. Co-writer, director, and star Joshua Leonard has met the challenge with his new film The Lie. Coupled with a fantastic performance from Jess Weixler, Leonard crafts a story that is both heartwarming and bitingly funny. It takes about twenty minutes for the film to find its rhythm, but once The Lie finds its groove, it’s an absolute joy.
Lonnie (Leonard) is a film editor who’s painfully unhappy at his job and wishes to follow his dream of becoming a musician. His wife Clover (Weixler) is about to wrap up at law school and is considering a job at a pharmaceutical company. That’s a major shock and disappointment to Lonnie, who begins to realize that the free-living hippie lifestyle and dreams he and his wife used to share are slipping away. Lonnie is so depressed that he can’t even bring himself go to work and lies to his boss by telling him that their daughter is sick. He then spends the day recording a terrible song with his friend Tank (Mark Webber). The following day, he’s still unwilling to the office and confronted with the angry ravings of his boss, he says that his daughter has died, because what’s the point of having kids if you can’t use their fake deaths to get out of work?
It’s a shockingly horrible lie and one that can’t possibly sustain itself, but rather than feeling dark or even making Lonnie come off as reprehensible, it’s a set-up for a comedy of errors. The movie never reaches the level of a madcap farce, but watching Lonnie try to keep the ruse alive and a secret from Clover provides the movie with a sharp comic edge that’s never mean-spirited. It’s not until Clover is politely listening to Lonnie’s hilariously terrible song “Soulcrusher” that the film finds its comic voice, but once it does, The Lie knows just how to balance the comedy with the emotional weight of Lonnie and Clover’s marriage.
It’s not enough to love someone. You also have to be willing to change with them. The Lie approaches Lonnie and Clover at an important crossroads in their lives where they don’t want to sacrifice their identities and dreams but they also have to face the mature realities of being a young couple with a child. Lonnie and Clover have a chemistry that’s sadly been missing from a lot of the love stories I’ve seen at Sundance this year. It’s not about who has quirky traits or just smiling a lot. When Clover is listening to Lonnie’s song “Soulcrusher”, Weixler has to manage the task of showing the audience that she knows the music is awful, keep up the polite façade so as not to hurt Lonnie’s feelings, and do so without dialogue because she’s listening to her husband’s ear-splitting warblings. This is a couple you want to see succeed and Leonard finds convincing conflict without resorting to the old standard of infidelity.
The Lie does take a bit too long to hit its stride. Even though only the first twenty minutes are slow, that’s a quarter of the film’s 80 minute runtime. The film also never really knows what to do with Tank. At best, he functions as a poorly defined sage-like character who seems to represent both freedom and responsibility. Those ideas are already expressed through Lonnie and Clover’s relationship so having an oddball, rarely-seen character stand as a symbol seems redundant. These minor frustrations aside, Leonard has made a film that manages not only to take an honest, fulfilling look at the difficulties of marriage, but does so in a funny and delightfully unexpected way.