It’s 1956 and the hugely successful comedy team of Vince Collins (Colin Firth) and Lanny Norris (Kevin Bacon) perform on live TV as part of a charity fundraiser for sick kids. Meanwhile, a beautiful girl named Maureen O’Flaherty (Rachel Blanchard) lies dead in a bathtub at their hotel suite. Though a rushed investigation cleared both men of any wrongdoing, the incident brought their partnership to an end and has haunted their careers all the way to 1972 when ambitious young journalist Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman) seeks out the reclusive Vince and evasive Lanny in a bid to uncover the truth.
Devoted fans of vintage American popular culture will immediately spot that Collins and Norris are a thinly-veiled pastiche of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, although Collins’ genteel yet tightly wound mannerisms share as much in common with Rat Pack also-ran Peter Lawford. It is perhaps no surprise that writer Rupert Holmes, on whose novel the film is based, should pattern the characters after his childhood idols, since the fractious but co-dependent relationship between Martin and Lewis intrigued an entire generation of baby boomers, from film academics to journalists or armchair psychologists. As Holmes and Canadian writer-director Atom Egoyan would have it, the key to any successful show business is trust. Where the Truth Lies slides comfortably into Egoyan’s filmography of penetrating psychological studies wherein a warped, but somehow functional relationship is fractured when that trust is betrayed. His finest films, The Sweet Hereafter (1998) and Felicia’s Journey (1999) explore such themes with deft insight and subdued poetry although some detractors find his approach somewhat clinical.
Our heroine, Karen O’Connor is imbued with the same fascination for Lenny and Vince, although her obsession runs deeper than any ordinary journalist. For Karen was the polio-ridden little girl who shared the screen with Lenny and Vince at that fundraiser. Their efforts saved her life, making them her childhood heroes which is why she follows the path they weave, hoping to prove their innocence. Even though they lead Karen to some dark and sordid places. Lifting ideas from Rashomon (1950) and Citizen Kane (1941), Egoyan tells the story through fluctuating time-shifts between the Fifties and Seventies and through multiple perspectives.
Underlining the story being a heroine’s journey through various confounding, illusory worlds, Karen visits “Wonderland” - a Lewis Carroll themed children’s hospital, of which Vince is a patron. Here, Vince’s beautiful singing protégé, costumed as Alice in Wonderland (Kristin Adams) performs an amusingly incongruous rendition of “White Rabbit”, the famous Carroll referencing psychedelic pop classic by Jefferson Airplane. The bond between Karen and her fictional counterpart is made clear as Vince manoeuvres both girls into a drug-induced, yet subliminally consensual lesbian liaison. The abundant sex scenes drew criticism in the US where the film was unjustly slapped with a NC-17 rating. While explicit, these scenes are not gratuitous and whether ranging from darkly erotic, to harrowing or else genuinely tender, serve to underline the multifaceted nature of the protagonists. We see every side to their character, whether genial, manipulative, cynical, depraved or vulnerable. The film is impeccably performed with admirable, risk-taking work from Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth and a luminous Alison Lohman.
However, though the film weaves an absorbing tale, ultimately it proves less than the sum of its impeccably crafted parts. For all its shifting perspectives and ominous mystery, the film says little that is especially profound about reality and illusion other than heroes are flawed and showbiz is seedy. That said, the final reveal of what Lanny whispered to young Karen on that fateful broadcast does move and shows why we keep faith with our idols even when they let us down.