Threesome Gone Bad

Atom Egoyan's erotic thriller leaves a few too many loose ends

I'm a long-time fan of the work of director Atom Egoyan (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter), and I love noir murder-mysteries, so I was bound to like Where the Truth Lies. Still, this film that deftly bridges the gap between a Cinemax late-night "erotic thriller" and an actual movie is deeply flawed, and will probably stand as one of Egoyan's minor works.

The set up is basic noir: A song-and-comedy duo from the '50s finds a dead woman in their hotel bathroom. Fifteen years later, a young reporter tries to uncover what exactly happened on the night the woman died. Unlike most movies that follow this sort of plot, though, the lead characters in Where the Truth Lies are transparently based on Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Hey lady, you're dead in my bathtub!

Even stranger, the film is based on a book by Rupert Holmes. If you don't know who Rupert Holmes is, then I can only assume that you do not like piña coladas, nor do you like getting caught in the rain, but that you are into yoga, and that you do not have half a brain. Anyway, when Mr. Holmes isn't writing the kind of songs that you wish weren't stuck in your head, he pens clever and sleazy novels about murder and sex and sexual murder.

Alison Lohman plays Karen O'Connor, a reporter who gets her lucky break in 1972 when she's chosen to write a biography of Vince Collins (Colin Firth), the Dean Martin half of the duo.

Collins' career has been on a long, slow decline since the night in 1957 when, after finishing a three-day stint headlining a polio telethon, he checked into a hotel room with his partner, Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon), only to find that someone else had already checked out in that very room.

The woman in question was a maid in the hotel where the telethon had been shot. Strangely, that hotel was in Miami, whereas the dead body was found in a hotel in New Jersey, site of Collins and Morris' next gig.

How the body got there, the sordid sexual antics that led to the woman's death, and the naked people who were involved in the pre-murder shenanigans all add up to a twisted tale that Egoyan presents in his usual nonlinear style. Jumping back and forth from the swinging '50s to the psychedelic '70s, he drops clues, leaves hints and slowly weaves together a story of two kings of comedy, the night they formed a threesome on a couch, and how one of them became the patsy in a complicated game that made a clown cry.

Egoyan uses the same techniques here that he used much more successfully in Exotica and his masterpiece The Sweet Hereafter. What set those films apart was that their every thread tied together into perfect and perfectly sensible wholes. In Where the Truth Lies, there are a few enormous plot holes and logic leaps, and that's a terrible no-no in a genre that demands precision.

For a murder-mystery film to work, both the murder and the mystery need to make sense. Any unexplained element, or any time an answer is given that closes a storyline but leaves open a question, the film is weakened. Ultimately, this is what knocks Where the Truth Lies out of the big leagues.

But there's still a lot to recommend it. Former teen star Lohman is perfect in the lead, putting forward a very unnatural acting style that combines Pollyannaish innocence with a kind of wide-eyed lubriciousness.

Kevin Bacon does a great old-school sleazy as the Jerry Lewis stand-in, but the real star is Colin Firth. As the washed-up has-been, and a man who once was able to bed any creature with two legs, he stinks of drugs and despair. He must have spent weeks shining a 100-watt bulb into his eyes to get look of a man who is defined by longing and regret.

What works best in this film, though, is its vaguely pornographic quality. Egoyan is clearly a master of the erotic. He's also obviously personally drawn to it. Every scene in Where the Truth Lies, no matter how chaste, reeks of sex. Blouses fall open; lips are wet and parted; stares linger a little too long; faces appear conspicuously moist, and each character looks like he (or she) wants three more things than he's willing to admit.

There are also some very graphic sex scenes which kept this film from getting an R rating. The scenes are, in fact, essential to the plot, but only because the plot is so sleazy. Still, even in the sex scenes, Egoyan shows that he's able to differentiate dirty and off-putting from erotic and enticing, and he makes good use of both modes.

He's aided by cinematographer Paul Sarossy's ability to switch from high-gloss to sadly tarnished. Sarossy should be proud of his work, because it not only does the difficult task of providing information in an information-dense film; it's also eclectic enough to show that he has real chops.

I can't recommend this film to everyone, but if you're hooked by the Martin-Lewis angle, and have a love for the noirish stylings of Billy Wilder and Jacques Tourneur, you might just get a kick out of this. Still, I can't help but think that Egoyan put too much of his talent into making an erotic film, and not enough into making a cohesive one.