'The Good Lie' movie review: The truth is, Reese Witherspoon's latest is a flawed but feel-good film

04 Oct 2014 04:21

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A "good lie," as explained by Mark Twain, is one in which someone tells a mistruth but for noble reasons. For example, in Twain's "Huckleberry Finn," when Huck saves Jim by telling a pair of men searching for runaway slaves that the only person aboard his raft is his smallpox-infected father, he was lying.
That lie saved Jim's life. Thus, it was a good lie.
And here's another good lie for you: Reese Witherspoon is the star of the drama "The Good Lie."
Witherspoon is in the movie, mind you. She is featured prominently in its trailers. But she doesn't appear on-screen until after 30 minutes or so. Even then, it's in a fairly vanilla supporting role.
Rather, this is a film that belongs to three actors you've probably never heard of: Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal. But if putting Witherspoon's mug on the movie poster is what it takes to get people to go see director Philippe Falardau's uneven but ultimately rewarding film, well then that's a good lie — and nobody who sees it is likely to hold it against Falardau.
Even with its flaws — including a jokey midsection that feels a bit padded — "The Good Lie" is a difficult movie to dislike. It has too much heart, too much hope, too much good humor.
The film, which is based on real-life events, delivers a message - some might say a sanitized one - without getting preachy. Moviegoers will want to applaud during the closing credits. (And that's exactly what happened after an advance screening last week at the AMC Clearview Palace in Metairie.)
The whole thing centers on the so-called "lost boys" of the Sudan — children who were displaced, orphaned or conscripted during the second Sudanese Civil War from 1983 to 2005. By some estimates, that war created more than 20,000 such lost boys — and girls — who crowded refugee camps praying they would win a U.S. lottery to resettle them in America.
"The Good Lie" starts with a group of such children, left to wander the African bush when the rest of their village — their parents, their elders, their chief — are gunned down by soldiers. It's a heartbreaking scene when they realize what has happened, as is their hundreds-mile journey, all on foot and with no adult assistance, in search of safety.
The young heroes rise to the multiple challenges thrown in front of them, mourn those who die on the way, and do what they must do in order to survive. Yes, they eventually make it to the camp, where they are left to wait for their chance at a new life — for 13 years.
Then comes the news they were waiting for: They are chosen for resettlement in America. But while their life in the refugee camp is ending, they are about to encounter a new set of struggles. Not only do they get split up — one is sent to Boston, three to Kansas City — but America is a whole other world for them.
These are people who know how to chase a pair of cheetahs away in order to score a free meal — but a telephone? What's that?
When they board the plane to head to America, one looks at the Nike T-shirt another was given years earlier by aid workers — emblazoned with the words "Just do it" — and says, "Now we'll finally find out what that means."
They'll also find out that putting their old lives behind them isn't so easy — particularly when it comes to a good lie told years earlier that still haunts all of them.
Of course, it's good to see the children — now grown into genial young adults — safe. But it's in the film's flabby, America-set midsection where it loses a good deal of its momentum.
It's where we finally meet Witherspoon, playing a brassy charity worker tasked with helping our lost boys find gainful employment — and she's good in the role. (Not to mention dark-haired, for a change.) But, honestly, she doesn't matter a whole lot to the film's plot. Neither do the other do-gooder Americans (Corey Stoll, Sarah Baker) who help her.
That's because "The Good Lie" is about the boys. Unfortunately, Falardau gets distracted with a series of jokey fish-out-of-water vignettes and subplots that feel forced and never quite pay off fully.
That's not to say there's anything wrong with levity. In fact, it goes a long way in a film such as this. But Falardau's willingness to linger there aimlessly makes it the weakest part of his film.
It's in the film's Africa-set scenes — at the film's start and again in its closing 25 minutes or so — when "The Good Lie" is at its best. This is where the story is at its most moving and rewarding.
Adding a layer of poignance: The actors playing the now-grown lost boys were all either real-life lost boys or the children of lost boys, as we learn in the closing credits.
And that's who this movie is about. It's about the lost boys. It's about their tragic story. It's about raising awareness, if gently, about what's going on in the Sudan.
But if it takes Witherspoon's white face to make people pay attention, then that's a lie that can be forgiven.
Snapshot: A feel-good drama, based on real events, about a trio of Sudanese refugees — rendered homeless as children by ongoing war in their homeland — who struggle to adjust to their new lives in America.
What works: It's an impossible film not to like, a well-acted and congenial message movie that avoids being preachy.
What doesn't: The film's America-set scenes are too jokey and too crammed with largely needless characters — including Witherspoon's, despite her above-the-title billing — and subplots that don't pay off fully.
Cast: Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany, Emmanuel Jal, Witherspoon, Corey Stall, Juoth Wiel. Director: Philippe Falardau. Rating: PG-13, for thematic elements, some violence, brief strong language and drug use. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes. Where: Find New Orleans and Baton Rouge showtimes.
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