A local literary festival is in dire straits. The organising committee need to bring in a credible writer, someone people would pay to see. In a fit of desperation, Simone (Kate Hudson) writes to Shriver, writer of the best-selling novel Goat Time, only it isn’t Shriver but a handyman with the same name, played by Michael Shannon. Encouraged by his friend to make the trip, since no one knows how the writer Shriver looks like, imposter Shriver arrives at the festival to a fawning crowd.
As Simone gets Shriver settled in, some speculate as to why exactly this literary festival brought him out of hiding. After all, Shriver has refrained from doing any public interviews and didn’t even show up when he was awarded the National Book Prize.
Shannon does a great job as Shriver, reflecting how ill at ease he is, yet possessing the ability to look at the world with a writer’s mind. He also plays a dual role, since he imagines a second Shriver constantly chiding him for the imposter that he is. An unnecessary directional choice, since Shannon is a skilled enough actor and doesn’t need a manifestation of Shriver’s conscience to communicate the character’s interior.
The festival is filled with people who desire what Shriver has – the gravitas and status that comes with writing an award-winning book. Despite the non-publicity Shriver gave his book, people bought it and enjoyed it, but the publishing scene has changed since then. When Simone talks about her own failed attempts to become a writer, she laments how branding and social media has become such a big part of the endeavour. Writers can’t just depend on being good anymore, they need to brand themselves into a writer worthy of an audience.
It’s the same thing for the world of journalism. The journalist who interviews Shriver doesn’t care so much about the truth but rather what he can sell. He tells Shriver that he can sit there and give him nothing, yet he can make something out of their interaction. The themes of reality and illusion are a big part of the space of the film – what is real and what is fiction? Does it matter?
As a Lit major, I can appreciate what the film has to say about Literature and writing, and how imposter syndrome feels, that you’re not good enough even when you write something worth being proud of. The problem is, the movie feels like it’s meandering most of the time. It’s funny initially, since we keep waiting for Shriver to be found out, and Shannon does so well playing a fish out of water, but this conceit becomes yawningly repetitive the more the film wears on. I could feel my attention waning as I sank deeper into the dullness of the movie, though it is rescued by little moments, like Shannon’s delivery of a monologue from Shriver’s book.
Hudson is solely underused, and we’re taken aback when it suddenly appears that she and Shriver have some romantic connection. With a better screenplay, this movie could have been something quite decent. As it stands now, there’s not enough edge for it to be satirical, and while earnest, there’s ultimately not enough interesting content to hold the viewer’s attention.
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Michael Shannon is the kind of actor that could even make the phonebook sound interesting. And while he's good, the movie that surrounds him isn't as much.
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