Where the Truth Lies (review)

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Pride and Prudity

You remember the old Veterans’ Day TV marathons for polio research that Lanny Morris and Vince Collins used to host, don’t you? You know, the two Rat Packers who made those great buddy comedies, where Vince was the priggish straight man and Lanny was the hilarious drunk? No? And then there was that scandal with the dead girl in their hotel suite? No? Not ringing a bell?

It never happened, of course. Totally invented, all of it. But it all feels so damn real, as if Where the Truth Lies were a dramatization of a classic Hollywood mystery — like how The Cat’s Meow did with the suspicious death of Golden Age producer Thomas Ince on William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924… one that offers its own speculative solution, too.
Director Atom Egoyan goes a tad more mainstream with this one. Where the Truth Lies is a less unconventional narrative than, say, his The Sweet Hereafter, and is concerned with far juicier things: sex, booze, celebrity — and celebrity disgrace. But he still managed to rattle the MPAA with one particular sex scene, which garnered the film an NC-17 rating that he then threw back in their faces to release the film unrated. (Hoorah for Egoyan releasing the film he wanted audiences to see, though I’m not sure there’s much difference, businesswise, between an NC-17 and no rating.) It’s not that the scene is particularly visually graphic — it’s rather modest, actually — it’s the idea of who’s doing what to whom that some folks will find upsetting.

I won’t tell you what that thing is that some folks will find so bothersome, because it is the fulcrum on which the mystery turns. But Egoyan couldn’t have asked for a better underscoring of one of his themes than the MPAA throwing a prude fit: Truth is, deliciously, about the things that are taboo when it comes to America’s most beloved performers, because they are taboo in the American culture at large, in the 1950s as well as today, and how far some people will go to keep the secrets celebs’ livelihoods depend on keeping secret.

And Lanny and Vince? Gosh, they were beloved, weren’t they? Kevin Bacon (Beauty Shop, In the Cut) as Lanny and Colin Firth (Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Love Actually) as Vince have such terrific chemistry together that you’ll go, “You know, they should make a couple goofy retro Rat-Pack-y comedies together — I’d pay money for that.” Their stage routines — in nightclubs and on their TV marathon — are perfectly pitched to capture the particular tenor of the entertainment of that time, when drunkenness could be funny, for one. And sure, yes, credit for that goes as much to Egoyan, for his script, adapted from a novel by Rupert Holmes, and for his cleverness in casting, as it does to Bacon and Firth themselves, but the film wouldn’t be half as much fun or half as poignant if we didn’t genuinely find ourselves deeply involved with Lanny and Vince, both separately and as a team. The flick really is as much about the sad collapse of their relationship in the wake of the dead-girl scandal — half the film takes place in the 1970s, as a young reporter, Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman: Big Fish, White Oleander, who looks here like an old-fashioned movie star), tries to get at the truth behind the mystery, and she discovers that even though the pair has been estranged for years, there’s still a deep current of… something between them. The thing: You really want to know not just the juicy details but the emotional stuff, too: What happened to these guys that was so shattering?

There’s a hint of how close Lanny and Vince are right as the film opens, when a heckler throws a wrench into one of their nightclub acts, picking particularly on Lanny, and Vince takes the guy into the back to, um, talk some sense into him. It’s a startling moment, one layered with all sorts of irony and meaning and power that only become clear in retrospect, after we’ve seen what kinds of bad behavior celebrities are allowed to get away with, and what kinds they aren’t. Some of it ties into the attitude of the MPAA, with its inadvertent stamp of approval on Egoyan’s smackdown of Hollywood hypocrisy — sex is bad, violence is A-OK. And some of it is about where the truth lies if you can see through the hypocrisy: it’s right in front of your eyes, if you know how to see it.

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