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Friday, Dec. 23, 2005
Memory is a funny thing
The 1950s, as rightwing commentators today strive to remind us, were paradise-on-earth in the good ol' USA, a halcyon era of cultural conservatism when family values, patriotism, and unquestioning acceptance of the status quo ruled the day. But is that an accurate memory? Many recent films would answer "no."
Take George Clooney's "Good Night and Good Luck," which portrays the rise of oppositional journalism, or the musician bio-pics "Ray" and "Walk the Line," which clearly show a drug-culture that predated Tim Leary and the hippies. Or how about "Kinsey," which locates the rise of America's sexual revolution smack-dab in the '50s, or "Far From Heaven" or "Capote," which seek to queer the decade slightly?
One of the more intriguing films in this revisionist category is Atom Egoyan's "Where The Truth Lies," a seductive noir-ish thriller that seeks to rip off the decade's facade to get at some dirtier truths. Though, this being an Egoyan film, like his previous works "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Ararat," the "truth" is obscured by the clouds of memory.
To facilitate this perspective, Egoyan employs a bifurcated timeline that has a journalist in 1972 looking into events that occurred in 1957. The film cuts back and forth in time quickly and frequently, employs voice-overs by several different characters, and has two actresses -- one the journalist, another a corpse -- that confusingly resemble each other. This tangle takes a while to unwind, but rest assured that it does.
Alison Lohman plays Karen O'Connor, a savvy young woman given to come-hither necklines and who exudes an air of innocence that cloaks her ambitions. She has landed a deal to write a tell-all book on her childhood heroes, the '50s comedy duo of Lanny Morris and Vince Collins (who are clearly based on Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin). Significantly, she has to disturb the skeletons in their closet -- why was the body of young woman found packed in ice in their hotel room in 1957, and why did the duo break up shortly thereafter, at the height of their popularity?
Vince (Colin Firth), the duo's straight man (or so we think), agrees to talk for a $1 million fee, but slips around the hard questions. Lanny (Kevin Bacon) refuses to cooperate, but Karen -- assuming a friend's identity -- seduces the older man. Flashbacks take us back to the '50s, and we learn more about Vince and Lanny: mob connections, pill-popping, constant womanizing and enough muck to make Karen the next Kitty Kelly. But what is Karen's agenda? She appeared on a telethon run by Vince and Lanny as a young child stricken with polio, and has idolized the comedians since. So does she seek to nail them or exonerate them?
Karen's impromptu investigation, and the perverse peril her curiosity places her in, seems to come straight out of a David Lynch film (as does Vince's home on Mulholland Drive), while the explication of the seedy workings of the '50s entertainment industry could have come out of Martin Scorsese's "Casino" or "Raging Bull." The psychological and sexual angles, however, are pure Egoyan, and not without a hint of kink.
The scene depicting the night the murder occurred -- an orgy of Benzedrine abuse, hookers and group sex -- will certainly shock fans of Bacon and especially Firth. Bacon, leaning over Maureen (Rachel Blanchard), a blonde college student -- herself an aspiring journalist, like Karen, 15 years later -- has a slightly mad look in his eyes as he praises the missionary position: "There comes that moment where, if you're really looking, you'll see exactly who she is." The irony is, of course, that he doesn't.
Meanwhile, Firth toys with Karen during an interview before spiking her drink and throwing her into some psychedelic lesbian sex with a singer in an "Alice in Wonderland" costume. The shift from the normal, "Mr. Darcy" romantic-lead types Firth is known for is jarring in the extreme.
Fans waiting for the suspense and last-reel narrative pay-off of a typical thriller had best look elsewhere, for that's not Egoyan's style. But for a fascinating study of sexual power games, and the gap between a celebrity's public and private persona (and, perhaps, our need to believe that there is no gap), "Where The Truth Lies" is well worth a look.