Where the Truth Lies

Atom Egoyan’s new film “Where the Truth Lies” has benefited from the controversy surrounding its rating. The MPAA gave it an NC-17 for one particular sex scene that Egoyan filmed in one shot, from one angle, which means he couldn’t edit it to tone it down for an R rating. He didn’t feel the film deserved an NC-17 (neither did most observers), so as a means of protest, he has released it with no rating at all.

The scene in question involves Kevin Bacon and Rachel Blanchard at first, and it is no more explicit or naked than your typical R-rated sex scene. But then they are joined by Colin Firth. He doesn’t bring any more graphicness or nudity to the equation, but he does bring homosexual connotations, and that’s what pushed it over the line for the MPAA.

I mention all this because the scene and the controversy it caused are probably the most interesting things about the movie. Egoyan (whose screenplay is an adaptation of Rupert Holmes’ novel) is an evocative director, here creating film-noir-style scenes set in 1957 and 1972 that are almost perfectly constructed, even down to the hard-boiled narration (more on that later). But beyond getting things like the cinematography and production design just right, he doesn’t accomplish much.

The story, about a Martin and Lewis-type comedy duo whose career went down the tubes after a dead teenage girl was found in their hotel room, is an unimaginative whodunit whose ultimate solution is as cliche as they come. It’s reasonably entertaining, for a while, until all the facts start to come out and you realize that instead of there being more to it than meets the eye, there’s actually less.

The comedy duo is Lanny Morris (Bacon), the zany, uninhibited nut, and Vince Collins (Firth), his British straightman. They follow the mold of all the great comedy teams, where one is always trying to keep the other in line, scolding him for his outrageous behavior and apologizing to the delighted audience for his uncouth antics. They sing songs, they tell jokes, they signal to Lanny’s butler (David Hayman) which girls from the audience they want brought backstage after the show.

Those are their public personae — Lanny is loony, Vince is reserved. Offstage, Lanny is more subdued and Vince is less polite. Neither man is what you’d call “nice.” When an audience member responds to Lanny’s hitting on his wife by calling Lanny a “kike,” Vince responds by good-naturedly inviting the man to assist them in a skit, taking him backstage, and beating the crap out of him.

All of this, occurring in the late 1950s, is told to us in flashback. The film actually takes place in 1972, 15 years after the dead girl incident. A reporter, Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman), is writing a book about Morris & Collins, and her publisher is paying Vince $1 million for his story. Lanny won’t cooperate, though: He’s writing his autobiography and has no interest in helping Karen write a book that would compete with his.

As fate would have it, however, Karen meets Lanny on an airplane, conceals her identity, and becomes privy to some of the details of his autobiography. Lanny narrates those sections of the movie, covering the events leading up to the death of the girl, and we know he will eventually lead us to the truth about how she died and who killed her.

The 1957 scenes are intercut with segments set in 1972, where Karen does the narrating and fills the role that, in an earlier era, would have been a tough-talking private detective. Karen is meant to suggest that archetype, and there’s just one problem: She’s terrible. Alison Lohman has a wispy, emotionless voice that removes all possible intrigue from her narration, and her physical presence is slight and weightless. She seems, at all times, like a high school drama student muddling her way through “Our Town,” completely outmatched by Bacon, Firth, and the grown-up material.

Bacon and Firth are suitably oily in their roles, each approaching unlikability but stopping just this side of it. It is a testament to Firth’s ability, in particular, that an actor so beloved and with such a genteel reputation could be so convincing as a cad. (Bacon, of course, is no stranger to this kind of thing.)

So while the movie is not without its strengths, it’s really just a dime-store mystery novel that has been dressed up with tawdry sex. Regardless of its rating, it’s hardly worth seeing for any reason beyond the curiosity of Kevin Bacon and Mr. Darcy being in a sex scene together.

C+ (1 hr., 49 min.; Not Rated, was rated NC-17 for several scenes of graphic sexuality and a lot of nudity, a little violence, scattered harsh profanity; the studio chose to release it unrated instead.)