Screen giants Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren tasked with keeping unwieldy thriller afloat

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A con artist knows to always stay one step ahead of his mark. The same applies to a con movie: its success or failure relies on its ability to stay a step in front of its audience, essentially running a con itself.

In "The Good Liar," the central swindle can be spotted a mile away. From there, it's only a matter of details, and the specifics here are tied up in such absurdity that it undercuts the film.   

At least the players are worthy. Screen royals Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren commit to the dance and make the most of what they're given. But what should be a sublime exercise in acting becomes a tedious case of waiting for the other shoe to drop. 

McKellen is Roy Courtnay, a grifter who dupes unsuspecting marks and bilks them for their cash. He and his partner Vincent ("Downton Abbey's" Jim Carter) have amassed quite a windfall over the years, though the scams they pull are so rudimentary the victims deserve to be separated from their fortunes. 

Mirren is Betty McLeish, a widow who meets Roy through an online dating service. They begin seeing each other regularly — the film is set in 2009, seemingly only so the pair can take in a screening of "Inglorious Basterds" together — and when Roy begins to run his scam on Betty, there are tells everywhere of the direction "The Good Liar" is headed. 

Director Bill Condon, who directed McKellen in "Gods and Monsters" and "Mr. Holmes," isn't stealthy enough to keep up the central ruse. By the time the big twist arrives, it poses a new set of questions the film isn't ready to answer. McKellen and Mirren are game, but "The Good Liar" is running a clunky con.

'The Good Liar'

GRADE: C+

Rated R: for some strong violence, and for language and brief nudity

Running time: 110 minutes

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

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