I can’t speak for what they’re like today, but in less politically-correct times, university writer’s conferences were a literary spectacle that unleashed famous novelists, poets and non-fiction authors and their fans and groupies on assorted august academic institutions and their young, “innocent” student bodies in what amounted to an annual academic bacchanale.
The limp but lighthearted and sensitive “A Little White Lie” brought to mind all sorts of lore I picked up covering and broadcasting my grad school’s mid-winter midwestern fete, the University of North Dakota Writer’s Conference. Tales of which literary legend chased which faculty member, or of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who tested a 40-below March in his birthday suit while drunk, entered UND myth.
The film, about an imposter (Michael Shannon) crashing such a festival, having been invited by mistake, brought to mind a hilarious story I heard (and broadcast) at the UND version of such an event. Norman Mailer read at that conference in the mid-80s. He chose “Our Man At Harvard,” a comic anecdote, heavily fictionalized I trust, about a scheme Mailer and others cooked up as Harvard undergrads to raise money for their literary magazine.
They schemed to pretend they’d landed the great British novelist Somerset Maugham for a fundraiser cocktail party to help fund their university literary magazine. They hadn’t reached Maugham, but instead teamed up to maintain the ruse that “you just missed him” during the party in a large, rambling house on campus. It’s hilarious, and so much funnier than this movie, based on a novel by Chris Belden, which could have been inspired by any of a number of writer’s conference stories, with an added fictional “reclusive author” twist.
In Michael Maren’s downbeat debut “comedy,” Kate Hudson plays a writer and academic at southwestern Acheron U., someone whose annual writer’s conference is facing extinction until she lands a long-shot star attraction for the 92nd edition of the event. He’s a J.D. Salinger figure named “Shriver,” who published “Goat Time,” a generational literary event, over 20 years before. He wrote it and promptly vanished from sight.
She gets an address of someone with that name, a sad, introverted alcoholic who works as an apartment building super in a city back east. When this Shriver (Shannon) gets the invite and reads that there’s a “prize,” and figures the real guy would never surface to expose him, he and a drinking buddy Lenny (Mark Boone Junior) resolve to reply.
A follow-up letter asks him to show up with “new writing” to share. So Shriver gets a notepad and starts scribbling an introspective, Bukowski-esque novel about a wet spot on the ceiling of his apartment.
He’d like to chicken out, even after deplaning out West. But running into the disappointed Claire (Hudson) in the airport bar makes him take pity, and our play begins.
Shriver’s conscience is the alter ego (Shannon as well) whom he hears in his head, berating him and assuring him he’ll never get away with it.
It’s the sort of thing that could make a sensitive fellow like Shriver have a William S. Burroughs-styled existential crisis, wondering if he IS Shriver, if he killed his wife, which is what the misogynist hero of his “over-hyped adolescent macho wet dream of a novel” did.
Meeting the drunken Thoreau-quoting faculty member/writer Wasserman (Don Johnson, the life of the party) who drinks so much that he can’t drive, so he rides to work each day on his trusty steed — Byron — a literary-minded grad assistant, an opinionated Black feminist poet (Aja Naomi King) and a fan (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) complicates his trap.
“I need you to behave for three days,” Claire pleads. “Can you do that? I need you to be the man who wrote one brilliant novel.”
Taking his pal Lenny’s direction to “always be depressed,” with a natural eccentricity (never showering), Shriver is reluctantly dragged to this workshop or that panel discussion or reception where a cougar groupie (Wendy Malick) tries to add him to her trophy wall, Shriver just might pull it off.
I love Shannon’s performance here — introspective, guilt-ridden, sad and thoughtful. He makes the character credible on several levels, a simple man capable of “Being There” profundities, the very picture of the “haunted artist.” Or fake haunted artist.
Johnson sparkles as a lively, delusional burnout. Every college English department has one.
Hudson’s character is underwritten and simply uninteresting, save for her beauty. There’s little chemistry with Shannon or anybody else.
Mostly this is a movie with a lot of possibilities, thus attracting a decent cast (M. Emmet Walsh and Zach Braff and Perry Mattfeld are also in it). But scene after scene takes on Shannon’s somber, funereal tone.
That’s not the movie. The movie should be contrasting his guilt-ridden, fear-of-discovery timidity with clueless, brassy and pretentious figures and goings-on all around him.
A lively moment — involving cheerleaders, binge-drinking and what not — reminds you of what “White Lie” isn’t. “The Wonder Boys,” for starters. There’s a sign of life, here and there, but not enough.
Honestly, I chuckled at the memory of that Mailer story which this film summoned up more than I did at the movie.
The celebrated Mailer created his own anecdote while at that long-ago writer’s conference where I met and tape recorded him, Alex Haley, Jay McInerny, Raymond Carver and other luminaries. The pugnacious novelist didn’t let the conference pick him up at the airport. He rented a car in Grand Forks, N.D. and somehow, in the blowing snow, went the wrong way the night of his reading and speech, and wound up in a road house in Thompson, N.D. asking for directions.
But first let’s have a “real man’s drink. One for the road.” With his new…friends.
There’s a play in that, I thought then and still do. Maybe there’s a movie. Probably a livelier one than “A Little White Lie.”
Rating: R, profanity, alcohol abuse
Cast: Michael Shannon, Kate Hudson, Don Johnson, Aja Naomi King, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Perry Mattfeld, M. Emmet Walsh, Wendy Malick and Zach Braff
Credits: Scripted and directed by Michael Maren, based on a novel by Chris Belden. A Saban Films release.
Running time: 1:41