So why did those guys, the smooth singer and the crazy nut—not Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis but “Vince Collins” and “Lanny Morris”—break up their fabulously successful act? And what did that have to do with the lovely young corpse planted by the New Jersey mob or maybe the ghost of Fatty Arbuckle in their hotel suite bathtub on the eve of the team’s ultimate telethon?
Atom Egoyan excavates the alternate history of our times in this tawdry yet stilted historical noir, adapted from Rupert Holmes’s giddy 2003 crime novel and opening, in a press agent’s dream of cosmic coincidence, only days before the pub date of Jerry Lewis’s tell-some memoir Dean & Me (A Love Story). Set in the early ’70s, on the eve of Watergate (when, as we now know, every aspect of American life was hopelessly crass and ruled by conspiracy), the movie triangulates estranged Collins and Morris with an ambitious young celebrity journalist (Alison Lohman). Some 15 years after the scandal and the guys’ subsequent divorce, she’s interviewing Vince (Colin Firth) for a tell-all memoir.
Not that the name Richard Nixon is ever uttered. Flashbacks to Collins and Morris’s nightclub and bedroom antics—”we were gods,” one of them muses—are complicated by the revelation that the young Ms. O’Connor (also played, in a surreal touch, by Lohman) was actually at the fateful telethon, as well as by the manuscript she receives unsolicited from Lanny (Kevin Bacon) or his minions in an attempt to sugar her off the case. Things get even weirder when the high-flying journalist meets the divine Lanny 40,000 feet in the air en route from Los Angeles to New York.
As its title suggests, Where the Truth Lies is a movie of multiple voices. Lush if not entirely coherent, this showbiz Rashomon has continuity, as well as credibility, problems. The scenario keeps returning to Lanny’s consciousness and pondering the nature of his personality. Game but not especially funny, Bacon is more effective as the cold, hostile “real” Lanny than as his manic, camera-kissing onstage persona; Firth drifts through the less demanding role of Vince, a sour cross between Dino and Rat Pack secondario Peter Lawford. Lohman is the least likely—and hence most Egoyan-esque—of the corn-fed blonde vixens who proliferate throughout.
A series of nearly inexplicable plot developments leaves the baby-faced journalist caught between the ex-partners—doing one and drugs with the other. This sort of baroque nastiness was a staple of early Egoyan. (Although in keeping with the novel’s Lewis Carroll motif, the annual pageant at the Wonderland children’s clinic with a band performing “White Rabbit” and everyone wearing bunny ears is an act out of Exotica—particularly as it concludes with an erotic circus back in the Hollywood Hills.) But in this relatively big-budget production, the director’s main anxiety seems to be wrapping up the mystery and selling the project. However artfully designed, Where the Truth Lies lacks the conviction of L.A. Confidential, let alone the visionary élan of Mulholland Drive.
What really happened in that hotel room that night? Was it blackmail? Suicide? Feasting on coincidence and dropping clues like bread crumbs as it circles the crime, Where the Truth Lies posits a breakup far more psychosexually charged than anything in Dean & Me (A Love Story). Some critics have found this well-telegraphed twist offensive—and the movie does wind up with a narrative cliché so outrageous as to constitute a Dada provocation. Salvador Dalí would have appreciated Egoyan’s use of lobsters, but given how prurient this material is, Where the Truth Lies should really have been more fun.