Producers: Jina Panebianco, Robert Ogden Barnum, Michael J. Reiser, Michael Shannon, Lucas Jarach, Byron Wetzel and Josh Kesselman   Director: Michael Maren   Screenplay: Michael Maren   Cast: Michael Shannon, Kate Hudson, Jimmi Simpson, Zach Braff, Mark Boone Junior, Kate Linder, Aja Naomi King, M. Emmet Walsh, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Don Johnson, Perry Mattfeld, Benjamin King, Wendie Malick, Romy Byrne, Adhin Kalyan, Natasha Hall, Peyton List, Erica Janey and Giorgia Whigham   Distributor: Saban Films

Grade: B

Roger Ebert once enunciated a rule that any movie that featured Harry Dean Stanton or M. Emmet Walsh in a supporting role couldn’t be altogether bad.  Now in his late eighties, Walsh has a small (and hardly pivotal) role in Michael Maren’s adaptation of Chris Belden’s 2013 novel “Shriver.”  Ebert later noted that the rule was occasionally violated—when Walsh appeared in Barry Sonnenfeld’s 1999 calamity “Wild Wild West,” for example—but overall it apparently still holds.  “A Little White Lie,” as Maren has retitled his version of Belden’s book, is a flawed but curiously winning comedy-drama of mistaken identity set in the rarefied world of academic literary culture.  Among films of that peculiar genre, it’s not the equal of Curtis Hanson’s 2000 “Wonder Boys,” but deserves comparison to Mark Poirier’s 2008 “Smart People.”

And it’s especially fortunate to have not only Walsh in the cast, but Michael Shannon as C.R. Shriver, a down-on-his-luck super in a run-down apartment building who’s one of a score or more of guys with that name to receive a letter from Professor Simone Cleary (Kate Hudson).  She’s a creative writing teacher at little Acheron University trying to save her department’s annual literary festival from the university’s cost-cutting president (Kate Linder) by inducing a major writer to attend this year’s event.  And she has a cultural Moby Dick in mind with Shriver, who published a massive, acclaimed novel twenty years before and then vanished, never having given an interview or permitting himself to be photographed.  Her mass mailing is an attempt to locate him and persuade him to be her festival’s guest of honor.

The obvious allusion here is to J.D. Salinger—Walsh, playing the department’s befuddled elder statesman, even mentions him, only to be informed by his colleague Wasserman (Don Johnson), a gnarly poet so given to drink that, refused a driver’s license, his mode of transport is a horse, that Salinger is dead.  But of course Salinger was merely reclusive, not disappeared.

Shannon’s Shriver is urged by a pal (Mark Boone Junior) even more of a wreck than he is to reply to the letter as the author and travel to Acheron to receive a promised award.  En route he meets one of the festivals most loyal fans, ebullient Delta Jones (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who not only “recognizes” him but presses a manuscript on him to read (as others will do as well).  Once he gets to the airport he reconsiders his imposture, but on meeting Cleary drowning her sorrow at his no-show in the bar, he relents and goes ahead with it. 

Some of what follows is thoroughly predictable.  Shriver and Cleary, also a writer but not a successful one, gradually connect romantically, though a last-act roadblock will endanger the relationship.  Shriver’s encounter with radical feminist poet Blythe Brown (Aja Naomi King) and her super-sensitive partner (Perry Mattfeld) turns out badly, and his dependence on the harried TA (Romy Byrne) assigned to see to his needs reflects the pressure that put-upon graduate students must often face in the real world.  On the other hand he gets unstinting support from the garrulous, quotation-sporting Wasserman, and from the endlessly supportive Jones.

Other plot twists are more out of left field.  A cop (Jimmi Simpson) shows up after Brown disappears, suspicious that Shriver might have done away with her just as the protagonist of “his” novel did his wife.  The festival’s main patron, wealthy Dr. Bedrasian (Wendie Malick), tries to seduce Shriver and add his photo to those of the literary icons prominently displayed as virtual trophies on her bedroom wall.  And a second man claiming to be the real C.R. Shriver (Zach Braff) shows up to derail the closing ceremonies and claim the award for himself.

Frankly the more predictable episodes work better, simply because, like the gags in a David Lodge novel, they’re grounded in the plausibly ridiculous circumstances that prevail at actual academic conferences.  The more outrageous occurrences are played more flamboyantly, coming off as less credible and, as a result, less funny.  One might also question the wisdom of having Shriver’s conscience appear on occasion (also played Shannon, appropriately sterner) to question what Shriver is up to.   

But what keeps you willing to go along with even the less successful bits is Shannon’s meticulously modulated performance.  In his hands Shriver is an awkward, hesitant guy whose courtesy toward junior faculty like playwright Victor Bennet (Adhin Kalyan) makes him likable whether or not he’s the real author, and whose occasional bouts of eloquence and perception, delivered seemingly unbidden with a becoming lack of ego, convince us that he might be the genuine article, as he comes to suspect himself.  Hudson hasn’t as much material to exploit, but though less nuanced she makes a fine partner for him.  Among the others Johnson will be a primary crowd-pleaser, a single serious reflection added to his character’s drunken volubility humanizing him a bit.  Some of the others, Braff and Malick among them, would have done well to tone things down somewhat, but they were presumably following Maren’s instructions; his touch is occasionally uncertain, though with Shannon he strikes the golden mean.

The shoot of the film was interrupted for more than a year because of the pandemic, but the hiatus doesn’t appear to have affected either the cast or the crew, who do an excellent job as well.  Derrick Hinman’s production design is attractive (the main location was the campus of the University of Redlands east of Los Angeles), and Edd Lukas’ cinematography is equally so; Ed Yonaitis’ editing is well judged and Alex Wurman’s score is cheeky without becoming oppressive. 

Befitting its title, this is a small, wistful dramedy that invites chuckles rather than the big belly-laughs of so many raunchy campus farces.  And it’s all the better for it.