Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth, Alison Lohman, Sonja Bennett, Rachel Blanchard, Kathryn Winslow
Written by: Atom Egoyan, based on the novel by Rupert Holmes
Directed by: Atom Egoyan
MPAA Rating: NC-17 (rating surrendered)
Running Time: 108
Date: 05/13/2005
IMDB

Where the Truth Lies (2005)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Backstage Crass

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

American movies have violence down pat, and each year some enterprising filmmaker figures out a way to push the envelope, exploring new and more intense ways to inject celluloid carnage. This year's Sin City is the latest, and in many circles it's already hailed as a classic.

But sex is another matter. American Puritanism knows no bounds; apparently we're not allowed to consider that more people have probably indulged in sex than have fired guns. Yet while the MPAA doesn't particularly care how many rounds of ammunition pelt the human flesh, it does care how many pelvic thrusts are shown in a moment of passion.

Hence, if a non-porn movie dares to take on sex, it must tread lightly. It comes out either as a lurid potboiler (Body Heat, Basic Instinct) that often goes straight to video, or a highbrow art film discussed only in hushed tones (Last Tango in Paris, The Piano, Crash).

And so we have the new film by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan, Where the Truth Lies, which cleverly attempts to straddle both ends of the erotic movie spectrum. It weaves together sex, showbiz heartbreak, and a carefully orchestrated mystery, with a stab at highbrow artistry.

In the 1950s, the successful singing/comedy team of Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth) rule the airwaves and the nightclubs. Their popular and risque act usually allows Lanny his choice of post-show ladies.

This duo will probably bring to mind Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis -- especially because of the 36-hour fundraising telethon they host -- but their team dynamic differs entirely. In their case, Lanny is the rude, lascivious jerk while the polite, English-born Vince makes his behavior acceptable, and even lovable. Vince demonstrates his loyalty when a heckler makes an anti-Semitic comment toward Lanny; Vince takes the man backstage under the pretense of "helping out with the next sketch" and pounds the tar out of him.

But something terrible happens the night of the telethon, and Lanny and Vince break up for good. The official story is that the corpse of a young woman suddenly turned up in their hotel room the morning after the telethon, but no one has ever discovered how she got there and whose fault it was. Fifteen years later, a beautiful young reporter, Karen O'Connor (Alison Lohman), is commissioned to write a book about Vince.

Karen begins to snoop, and her investigation takes a sudden turn when she unexpectedly finds herself sitting next to Lanny in first class. She lies about her identity, but the couple hits it off and she spends the night with him, which seriously jeopardizes her journalistic objectivity.

Despite these setbacks -- another of which includes a drug-induced evening of bisexual recreation -- Karen continues to dig, and Egoyan presents her discoveries as shards of flashbacks, each glinting a new bit of light on another piece of the puzzle. He tightly and cleanly unfolds the mystery with unbroken patience.

For his films, Egoyan usually employs a chilly surface to cover up the monstrous, roiling emotions and obsessions taking place just below. Egoyan's most acclaimed work, The Sweet Hereafter (1997), as well as its less-appreciated follow-up Felicia's Journey (1999), subsequently avoid the usual thriller elements, such as thumping music or leering bad guys. But by its very nature Where the Truth Lies moves a little closer to the meeting between chaos and surface, between lurid potboiler and high art.

The irony is that Egoyan has somewhat damaged his signature style. Where the Truth Lies comes with a strange side affect, a queasiness that comes of too much 1970s period dabbling, too much makeup, hairspray, chemical additives and excessive lifestyle. It seeps up through even Egoyan's sterling sheen and tarnishes it. Fans of The Sweet Hereafter will notice very little left of their beloved auteur here; Where the Truth Lies smacks more of James Toback.

Regardless, Where the Truth Lies is still a nicely crafted piece of work, an odd departure for Egoyan, but another step forward in the long journey toward truly showing sex in cinema.

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