“Where The Truth Lies”: Double Jeopardy
Director Atom Egoyan’s hypnotic new movie is a meditation on truth, identity, innocence and murder. It’s a mystery that becomes more and more mysterious as it moves along, and even at the end you may not be sure you’ve read all of it right. The leads — Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth, and Alison Lohman — are extraordinarily good in ways they haven’t been before, and they negotiate the film’s startlingly graphic sex scenes with bold assurance. The picture is a classic film noir in tone — it’s suffused with seediness and unsavory secrets; but Egoyan has dragged the genre out of the shadows among which it was born and into the sparkling, almost stage-managed sunlight of Miami and Los Angeles, where the story’s creepiness seems even more starkly perverse.
The movie opens in 1957 in Miami, where America’s best-loved comedy team, Lanny Morris (Bacon) and Vince Collins (Firth) are hosting the Veteran’s Day Polio Telethon — 39 hours of crass mugging, corny songs and witless wisecracks — that annually burnishes the image the two partners have crafted over many years in movies and nightclubs. Lanny is the borderline-obnoxious goofball of the act; Vince, an Englishman, contributes a redeeming touch of class. “His presence,” Lanny says, in one of the film’s rich stream of insinuating voice-overs, “gave America an excuse to like me.”
A little girl comes up onstage. Her own polio is in remission, thanks to Lanny and Vince’s fundraising efforts, and she’s adorably thankful. Lanny hugs her with tears streaming down his face. Basically nice guys, it seems — until we see Vince backstage beating another man bloody in a sudden fit of rage. Now we’re not so sure.
The picture next jumps to 1972, and we learn that that telethon 15 years earlier was the last time Lanny and Vince ever worked together; they haven’t spoken to each other since. We also learn that before the show began, the naked body of a dead college girl named Maureen (Rachel Blanchard) was found submerged in the bathtub of the luxury hotel suite the two comics were sharing. Police quickly concluded they weren’t culpable, and declared the girl’s death a suicide. But Lanny and Vince were deeply shaken, and still are. And it’s not entirely clear why.
We also meet Karen O’Connor (Lohman), the grateful little girl on the telethon stage, now all grown up. Karen is a fledgling journalist; she’s written a few magazine cover stories, but she wants to make a bigger splash. Still fixated on her favorite comedy team, she sets out to secure their assistance in writing a book about them — a tell-all that will explain the reason for their break-up, and finally reveal what actually happened the night that girl was found dead in their suite. She contacts Lanny about telling his side of the story, but is informed that he’s writing his own book (not to be published, we later learn, until both he and Vince are dead). However, when Karen tracks down Vince, now living in seclusion in a swank, sterile house in the hills above L.A., she finds him more amenable — especially when she tells him that her publisher will pay him one million dollars if he’ll come clean about everything. Vince agrees to work on the book with Karen, but first …
Well, it would be wrong to reveal too much of the movie’s madly intricate plot, and very hard to do, anyway — it’s a puzzle palace filled with locked rooms and dubious keys that stick at every turn. We’re constantly having to revise our understanding of what’s going on. The relationship between Lanny and Vince is an ever-shifting enigma, and when the soon-to-be-dead Maureen puts in a flashback appearance, even she turns out to be not at all what we expected.
Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth and Alison Lohman might seem an oddly matched set of actors, but their performances mesh with remarkable finesse. Bacon, playing a character who’s essentially a showbiz slimeball, kitted out in garish, ’70s-style neck-scarves and aggressively colorful tight trousers, still manages to suggest glimmers of decency beneath the sleaze. Firth uses his characteristic inwardness to depict a man who may be unreadable even to himself. And Lohman, with her creamy complexion framed by radiant strawberry-blonde hair, and photographed to look as if she’s lit from within by a bundle of sunbeams, is the perfect incarnation of innocence waiting to be defiled. And, in this brilliantly nasty movie, not waiting all that long.
— Kurt Loder
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