Lonnie’s pretty young for a mid-life crisis but he’s having one all the same. A still-shaggy recovering hippie somewhere in his thirties, Lonnie (Joshua Leonard) loves his wife Clover (Jess Weixler) and baby Xana and absolutely hates his job as a commercial editor. Already depressed, he’s knocked for a loop when he learns Clover, who’s just finishing law school, is about to accept a job at a pharmaceutical company, a decision that flies in the face of their family’s progressive beliefs about public advocacy, holistic medicine and organic diapers. The next morning, Lonnie snaps. He plays hooky from work and has a blast smoking weed and recording music with his buddy Tank (Mark Webber). He has so much fun, in fact, he tries to skip out on work again the next day, but this time his boss won’t hear it. Fumbling for an excuse, Lonnie blurts out maybe the worst one he could ever possibly give: he claims his daughter just died.
That’s the lie at the heart of “The Lie,” the solo directorial debut from Leonard, best known as one of the stars of “The Blair Witch Project” and the delightful indie comedy “Humpday.” Though “The Lie” is based on short story by T.C. Boyle, “Humpday” feels like its direct inspiration. Both films are about young married men trying to reconcile the domestic guys they’ve become with the cool, free-spirited dudes they used to be. Both films also contrast straight-laced protagonists with hedonistic friends who never settled down. Interestingly, Leonard’s switched roles this time through the story; in “Humpday” he was the wild child who never grew up; in “The Lie” he’s the former pothead turned responsible breadwinner.
“The Lie” and “Humpday” also share a cinematographer (Benjamin Kasulke) and an improvisational approach to dialogue (on “Humpday,” Leonard and co-star Mark Duplass invented their lines on the set; on “The Lie,” actors Leonard, Weixler, and Webber are credited as screenwriters). In other words, Leonard hasn’t exactly broken new ground with his first feature. He doesn’t bring much to the table visually, either. But he has made a funny and believable family comedy. Its greatest asset is its cast, particularly Weixler, who proves herself a very talented silent comedienne. Her reaction shots in the scene where Lonnie plays Clover his band’s terrible music — music that reveals his frustration with his life, and by implication, with her — are absolutely priceless.
As the lie becomes “The Lie,” Leonard does a nice job of ramping up the comedy without sacrificing the believability of the world he’s established; the movie is very funny at times but it’s never outlandish. His only serious misstep is his choice of endings. For a story that’s rooted so deeply in a realistic approach to character and dialogue, the conclusion of “The Lie” plays too much like a fantasy. Leonard clearly has some affection for his characters, and he provides them with an escape hatch from their problems that’s a bit too easy. In a movie about the hard truths of marriage and adulthood, it just feels like a lie.