Since “Where the Truth Lies” debuted at Cannes this past May, it has been beset by a censorship controversy that, like “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” before it, might just be its only saving grace, financially speaking. Because Atom Egoyan‘s latest effort is a pretty wretched film, formulaic, confused, and just plain lazy. Horny teenagers (or dirty old men in overcoats) sneaking into theaters to catch a glimpse of nubile titties just might be the film’s single sustainable demographic. Gone are the days when Egoyan could be counted on to say something profound and nuanced about repressed desires and sexuality. Now, with “Truth Lies,” all we have are an extensive series of meaningless, admittedly hot couplings–save for the infamous NC-17 baiting menage-a-trois between Colin Firth, Kevin Bacon, and Rachel Blanchard, which is tame and un-arousing by any standards–peppering a generic hodgepodge. A “Citizen Kane“–type narrative of journalistic discovery is clumsily crossbred with elements of noir, melodrama, and Fifties art-direction fetishism, that supposedly pays off in a last-minute reveal–which in truth ends up feeling forced rather than revelatory.
Bacon and Firth play Lanny Morris and Vince Collins, a Martin-and-Lewis-styled entertainment tandem; Firth’s reserved British straight man plays foil to Bacon’s jelly-legged comic dynamo, a relationship as simpatico onstage as it is off. The halcyon days of the Sixties variety television circuit is burnished and gauzy, filtered through a veil as if drunk on its own aesthetic. In this era of supposedly pristine morals, Lanny and Vince do everything together–drugs, booze, groupies–until one night, a young girl is found dead in their bathtub, an unfortunate and mysterious event that precipitates their separation. Then cut to 15 years later, and the aesthetic comes crashing down around them. The Seventies’ normally gaudy colors are muted and matted: a grand, clumsy signifier that the truth will be laid bare, just as the sheen has been stripped off the film. A young gonzo journalist, Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman) attempts to mine the details of that night and shoehorn it into a sensational book, finding the time to squeeze in some star-fucking. In true melodramatic fashion, Karen also happens to have benefited from Morris and Collins’ yearly telethon for Polio inflicted children, setting up a contrived internal schism in which Karen is convinced of their guilt (the two stars were never charged with any wrongdoing) yet deeply grateful for their past generosity.
Egoyan has always been at his best with inscrutable (but not impenetrable) meditations on human dynamics, but from the very opening, “Where the Truth Lies” is terribly schematic. It’s very hard to trash this film in the fashion it so richly deserves without revealing its clunky, awkward pair of twists. But suffice it to say, it might have been groundbreaking and controversial 20 years ago, when the limits of acceptable sexual expression in cinema were much more circumscribed–and might have been shocking if I’d never played a game of Clue. But now, when almost everything is permissible, how could a director of Egoyan’s estimable intelligence commit himself to such a self-satisfying (and obvious, and hackneyed) treatise on sexual politics? What’s that you say, Atom? Hollywood’s smug moral superiority was a sham? Christian kindness belied drug use, female degradation, and sexual perversion? No shit, really?
It’s not just that Egoyan awkwardly tacks about his premise (which is bad enough in itself), but that he’s labouring under the delusion that the pop-culture dream-making machine still needs to be taken down a peg–as if Altman’s “The Player” or Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive” never existed. In that way, “Where the Truth Lies” casts its lot with “Quiz Show” or George Clooney‘s liberal-porn “Good Night, and Good Luck” because it allows audiences to feel smugly (and cheaply) superior to the ethical turpitude of the organizations that dominate their lives.
Time was, Atom Egoyan observed his subjects with a cool and clinical distance that denied easy answers to questions of character motivation and identification. In “Where the Truth Lies”, he ineptly shoehorns his off-kilter obsessions into the conventions of a Hollywood whodunit narrative, giving obvious clues as to how we’re supposed to think and feel in every moment. An Egoyan film was once cause for cinephile celebration, because his cinema was singularly challenging, and he was beholden to no one. Censor-baiting sex scenes aside, now that he’s indecently begging for a place at the studio table, I wish he’d stop making movies for a while.
[James Crawford is a staff writer at Reverse Shot and has also written for the Village Voice.]
Take 2 by Eric Hynes
Atom Egoyan seems lost. Blame it on the bigger budget and bigger name stars, blame it on his drift from Canadian subjects and locales, but I think the problem is more basic than these. The failures of his last three features – “Felicia’s Journey,” “Ararat,” and the latest, “Where the Truth Lies” – all stem, despite their surface differences, from Egoyan’s approach to writing. What had been Egoyan’s strength has become his weakness. Again and again, he employs the same structure, the same fractured point of view and revelatory reversals that made “Exotica,” “The Sweet Hereafter,” “Calendar,” and “Speaking Parts” so uniquely powerful but lately seem impotent and forced. Egoyan is Atom-izing whatever source text he encounters rather than finding site-specific strategies for each story. “Where the Truth Lies” adds layer upon layer for the sake of narrative complication, but its layers are thin, the complications are facile, and its emotional denouement is neither earned nor effective.
Yet you can see how this happened. On paper, “Where the Truth Lies” sounds like a good fit for Egoyan. His tangled narrative style borrows a lot from noir, so a noir skin with an Egoyan heart holds promise, as does its conflation and inversion of public and private, Hollywood and hippie, partner and “partner.” But the film seems reluctant to delve too deeply into anything, offering instead characters “complicated” by conflicting cliches and programmatic shiftiness. Unconvincing as comedic performers, creepy cads, or Hollywood burn-outs, Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon are submarined by the script’s insistence on imposing complexity from above. “Where the Truth Lies” certainly looks sumptuous, but the imagery is just as hollow and quotational as character, plot, and music, and its unmodulated alternating between melodramatics and pyrotechnics.
Egoyan specializes in transforming the expected into the unexpected, in repeating shots and revealing worlds of emotion that weren’t at first apparent. “Where the Truth Lies” will make things tidy for critical monographs and career retrospectives, outfitted as it is with auteurist rhymes and genre-play. But by repeating himself so thoroughly and dependably, he’s lost the power to surprise.
[Eric Hynes is a Reverse Shot staff writer and has written for Cinemascope.]
Take 3 By Jeff Reichert
It isn’t just my natural contrarian reaction to the spate of mediocre-to-awful reviews (like the two above), the promise of multiple fleshy couplings, or the fact that I’ve had a real hard-on (no pun intended?) for Egoyan since high school that excites me about “Where the Truth Lies.” It’s all of those things, but perhaps mostly the sense that he’s finally attempting to shuck pretense and just crap out the piece of true sleaze “Exotica,” “Speaking Parts” and “Family Viewing” hinted at (except now his characters remember getting off instead of getting off while remembering).
Just because the guy’s been all “profound and nuanced” in the past shouldn’t necessarily mean that a film made in all caps is a step backwards–in this case, the corset that is auteurism may be well past its usefulness as a supporting agent and now just suffocates. If “Ararat” left one with the sense that perhaps the filmmaker had been following his script too closely (“Well, now’s a good time for big, sweeping historical statement”), reactions to “Where the Truth Lies” suggests he’s gone off the teleprompter entirely (i.e., “I’m going to try and make big, dumb, hott movie that no one will like”)…which is exactly when a filmmaker with such prodigious talents can get really exciting. Even if we are talking about “worsts” here (which is more than a tad unfair), bad Egoyan is better than good Todd Solondz, or Gus Van Sant, or Mike Mills, or…
[Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot. He is currently employed as director of marketing and publicity for Magnolia Pictures.]