Where the Truth Lies (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna
We both wished we could have liked this movie much more than we actually did. The reviews make it seem like we're giving two thumbs down, but I don't think that's a completely fair summary of our positions. It's more accurate to say that we didn't turn our thumbs up, even though Atom has made some of our favorite movies.
WARNING - (ALMOST) TOTAL SPOILERS. I never do reveal the identity of the murderer, nor the secret of the team's break-up, but I do spoil many details along the way.
Atom Egoyan, although fundamentally an arthouse dramatist with an eye for human loss and alienation, a jazzed-up Edward Albee with a movie camera and a Canadian passport, has also been a mystery writer at heart. The techniques of the mystery genre have always made his best movies better. If his great dramas, The Sweet Hereafter and Exotica, had been told in chronological narrative fashion, they would not have commanded our attention as they did. For as long as possible, Egoyan concealed the key tragedies which underlay the drama, and by doing so, he generated audience involvement in a way that would not have been possible with straightforward hand-wringing dramas which began or ended with tragedy. Let's face it, more people will watch an involving mystery than a melodrama about desperation, so Egoyan's mastery of genre-style storytelling enabled him to expand his audience beyond the turtleneck set and into some mainstream suburban theaters. The success of The Sweet Hereafter even allowed Egoyan to hob-nob with the movie biggies at the Shrine Auditorium in 1998, where he sat in the audience as a nominee for two of the most important Oscars: best adapted screenplay, and best director. Pretty rarefied air for a Canadian film which had grossed less than five million dollars!
That day in 1998 must now seem like a long time ago to Egoyan, whose subsequent films have found neither lavish critical approbation nor significant audiences. He has made no trips back to the Oscar ceremony as a nominee, and his subsequent films have failed to crack seven in the IMDb ratings.
He's also lost whatever minimal popular appeal he created with The Sweet Hereafter. If its $4 million gross was surprisingly low for a "best director" nominee, that film must now seem to him like a license to print money. The Sweet Hereafter grossed more than the three subsequent films added together! Felicia's Journey and Where the Truth Lies failed to clear the million hurdle, and Ararat wasn't much over it. I have to think that there are some unhappy investors in Where the Truth Lies, because the budget was $25 million.
Perhaps Egoyan thought that his skills as a mystery writer could help his films get more exposure and higher grosses than usual, because Where the Truth Lies makes the quantum leap from "melodrama disguised as a mystery" to "full-fledged mystery noir with only a hint of dramatic significance." If he did think that, he was wrong, or perhaps he has lost some of his skills, because Where the Truth Lies must be the most obvious mystery I've ever seen. It's a classic case of the screenwriter being many, many steps behind the audience.
How much more obvious could it be? I was able to figure out the key secret before I entered the theater, from reading the official plot description! "A female journalist tries to uncover the truth behind the breakup, years earlier, of a celebrated comedy team after the duo found a girl dead in their hotel room. Though both had airtight alibis and neither was accused, the incident put an end to their act." Well, let's see. What could the big secret be? Without seeing the film, we know she must have seen something she wasn't supposed to see, and she wasn't going to be quiet about it, so somebody had to make her disappear somehow in a way that gave the boys an alibi. The film is rated NC-17, so whatever she saw must be something kind of sexual and forbidden. Whatever it was, it was bad enough to make a really successful act like Martin-Lewis break up forever and, since they were in no legal trouble, it had to be something which bothered one of them so much that he didn't want to keep working with the other guy. Gee, what could it be? Normally when I make my guesses about films like this, I can figure out one or two major points, but the film still presents surprises along the way. Not in this case. I had every important plot point already figured out at home. It's a mystery with nothing very mysterious about it. (* See below for some thoughts about the one detail which was NOT obvious. That includes major spoilers, of course.)
Is that enough to ruin a film? No, probably not. I think if you were to guess immediately the identity of the real bad guy in L.A. Confidential, for example, the film would still give you lots of lurid pleasures and visceral thrills along the way. In fact, I have no problem watching L.A. Confidential again and again, even though I know all the plot twists. Unfortunately "lurid pleasures and visceral thrills" are a long way from Atom Egoyan's home ballpark. He's a subtle, cerebral guy with an eye for nuance and he's a master at dealing with the sense of loss. That's not exactly the right formula for carrying a B-style noir mystery. People who watch movies like Body Heat and The Big Sleep don't expect the lead character to be reciting passages from Hamlet. These stories are about passion and guns and wisecracks. Egoyan doesn't really go there. He sort of tries. There's lots of sex and nudity and depravity and a dead body, but Egoyan just doesn't have the knack for sleazy entertainment. Sadly, the Rupert Holmes novel is said to have been a funny, raunchy, gossip-dishing delight. I guess that wasn't Atom's oeuvre ... at least I can't imagine buying a ticket for "Atom Egoyan's Wild Things."
The Trib is right about that performance. On top of all the film's half-hearted and failed forays into various genres, this film is dragged down by a very poor central performance from Alison Lohman. The girl is no Kathleen Turner. She is supposed to be a highly successful writer in her mid twenties, but comes off as a 14-year-old airhead, even though Lohman really was about 25 when the film was lensed. In fact, I was briefly led to think I may have been wrong about the film's central mystery. When one of the partners got sweet on Lohman, my mind started to wander and I thought, "Oh, she's supposed to seem like a 14-year-old airhead. The secret must be that one of the partners has a taste for really, really young girls, like pre-pubescent or something, and the other partner was disgusted by it." Of course, that was just a red herring I created for myself based on Lohman's performance. The strangest thing about her characterization is that she had to play the same character at approximately age 12 in flashbacks - and was completely convincing as the 12 year old!
As for Colin Firth ... oh, damn, I don't want to be negative because I like Colin Firth. He is terrific in everything he does. Having said that, I would like to know what possessed Atom Egoyan to cast a non-singing, basically unfunny Englishman as a thinly-disguised Dean Martin? I wonder what Robert Downey Jr, who can sing very well and is naturally funny and casual like Dino, might have done with the role. And I wonder what Carla Gugino or Keira Knightley might have made of the lead role.
The Movie Chicks summed it up well:
I should probably clarify that I didn't come out of the theater thinking I had just seen a bad movie. If you watch it, I don't think you'll be muttering "this sucks" to yourself. After all, it may be a failure, but it is still a film made by Atom Egoyan, not Jim Wynorski. It has some good moments generated by acting, camerawork and music; it has lots of naked women; it has Egoyan's brainpower; and it has $25 million worth of production values. It's not as bad as the British critics would lead you to believe. The 6.7 at IMDb may be somewhat misleading since only hard-core Egoyan fans have seen the film, but I really have no problem with it being in the 6s. Overall, I thought it was kind of an OK movie, but I just can't recommend it to anyone else. Where the Truth Lies is not successful as a weighty melodrama; it doesn't work as a page-turning mystery; it isn't old-fashioned sleazy fun; and it has one very bad performance in the middle of it. It also has the dreaded 1960s-style psychedelic drug/sex scene - complete with Jefferson Airplane music, and the storyline was written by the guy who wrote "The Piña Colada Song"! That doesn't leave much, does it? It's not for fans of mysteries or arthouse dramas or sleazy noirs - or even for fans of Atom Egoyan. By not committing to swim in any genre, but only dipping its toes in several, it ended up basically unsatisfying to everyone.
* Scoop's footnote on the one secret which is not obvious. Almost complete spoilers.
The identity of the person who actually killed the girl is a surprise, but that one fact is really not very significant. The key mystery involves the reason for the team's break-up. That reason is the fountain from which everything else flows. That reason creates a motive for the girl's death, and therefore implicates the stars in that death, even if neither of them actually ended up pulling the figurative trigger.
As the truth emerges, we see that the stars have committed a major felony, not only by failing to report the murder, but by actively plotting to cover it up. Thus, they are just as guilty as the actual murderer, although the precise crime they have committed and the punishment for that crime would vary depending on who would have taken jurisdiction over the case. Those of us watching the film know that the stars both thought they were covering up a murder - each of them thought the other had done it! Of course, their lawyers would probably argue that they simply thought they were protecting their careers by covering up an embarrassing overdose in their hotel room. But if a prosecutor could somehow prove that they thought they were covering up a murder, life imprisonment was probably a possibility. Lanny's memoirs would have been plenty of incriminating proof, since he states explicitly that he thought Vince was the murderer, and he also admits covering it up. It would not be a valid legal defense to argue that he incorrectly identified the murderer. So what?
Scoop's additional notes on the R-rated version. (More spoilers)
My original comments were written after having watched the NC-17 version twice. After having now watched the R-rated version of Where The Truth Lies, I'd have to say that Atom Egoyan was unnecessarily stubborn in not having created the very same version earlier, in order to get an R rating for the theatrical release. The cuts required to forge an R-rated version had no impact upon the flow or comprehensibility of the story. If the critical three-way sex scene was cut in any way, I really couldn't detect it.
There were two places where I did notice missing footage:
As I see it, that footage was unnecessary, and the film is just as good without it. In the case of the hooker, there never had been a good reason to show her, since she didn't exist in the first place! (She was fabricated as part of the official cover story.)
Where the Truth Lies (2005) is Atom Egoyan's attempt to make a
Giallo, but using his usual methodology, and highlighting his favorite
theme of dealing with loss. In this case, it was the death of a young
woman in the hotel suite of a comedy team clearly patterned after
Martin and Lewis. Nobody was sure she was murdered, the comedians
seemed to have airtight alibis, and the event has long since passed,
but the comedy duo split up permanently, seemingly as a result of this
death. Thus, this death caused many "losses." There was the girl's
mother, who lost her, and her father, who lost his mind over it and
committed suicide over it. There was the best friends/comedy act
losing each other over it, and before the film ends, the main
character loses her childhood hero.
Lacking suspense, the film might have worked as lurid entertainment, if it had been loaded up with songs, comedy, sex and nudity. Egoyan has never shied away from sex and nudity, but actually had very little in this film, given the story. Critics were unkind, some going so far as to say that Atom had become a sleazy B-movie director, but that was far from accurate. The script called for the nudity and sex. In fact, the sex scenes failed to titillate or generate any heat, as they might have in the hands of an exploitation director. The scenes were there because they were required by the plot exposition.
As for the other elements of entertainment, the singing and so-called comedy material the team performed on stage was not good at all, making it hard to believe that they had ever been famous. Atom's casting didn't help either. Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon were improbable choices for the Martin/Lewis team, and the leading lady, Alison Lohman, supposedly an ambitious wannabe writer who will stop at nothing to get at the truth, was horribly miscast. She looked like Bambi and sounded like Melanie Griffith.
Had this been made by a new director, or even one I didn't admire so much, I would probably not have been as disappointed. The film is not without plusses, mainly in what is called production value. Some of the scenes were hang-on-the-wall beautiful, and the nudity featured attractive people in good light. Some critics claimed that Atom has lost his touch, but I don't think that's true. The film craft is fine. It's just that the storytelling doesn't work in this film because the story itself was simply not suitable for an Egoyan approach. It would have taken a genre master to make a successful whodunit out of this one, and Egoyan's peculiar hybrid of whodunit and melodrama will not please many. Egoyan fans will miss the depth; sleaze fans will be disappointed by the level of nudity and sex; mystery fans will find a dearth of mystery and suspense.
Return to the Movie House home page