In a mystery titled Where the Truth Lies, solving the case is not going to be easy. In form, Atom Egoyan’s latest film is reminiscent of conspiracy-minded thrillers like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential that follow an investigator into a seedy underbelly perhaps best left alone. As a mystery, the movie largely fails. I’ve been shocked by too many incestuous and cross-dressing plot pirouettes to be much surprised at the secret behind the murder of a hotel maid associated with ‘50s lounge act Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth). But before the film succumbs to dum-dum-dum theatrics, it holds some potential as an exploration of how ego and ambition can prevent us from seeing the “truth.”
The film opens at what will be the last of Lanny and Vince’s annual Veterans’ Day Polio Telethon in 1956. Their shtick is patterned after Martin and Lewis, with Vince playing the suave (in this case, British) straight man and Lanny as his hyperactive childlike foil. When the telethon ends, they jet from Miami to Atlantic City to headline the opening of a new hotel owned by mob boss Sally San Marco (Maury Chaykin). There they discover in a bathtub the dead body of Bonnie Trout (Sonja Bennett), who worked at the hotel they just left in Miami. Lanny and Vince are cleared of any charges, but soon after, they break up.
These events, along with circumstances surrounding the murder, are revealed through the investigations of a young writer in the early ‘70s, Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman), who is working on a tell-all book about Morris and Collins. She has arranged an exclusive deal with Vince to detail his life in the comedy team. She also arranges to see chapters from Lanny’s autobiography. Seeking ever more exclusive access, she pushes her increasingly tangled personal involvements with the aging performers, even seducing and sleeping with Lanny after a chance encounter.
Karen is smart, fashionable, ambitious, and styles herself as the up and coming forefront of “New Journalism.” In order to portray the “truth,” she includes herself as a character in her reportage, a strategy Vince questions. She was an adoring fan of Morris and Collins as a child and, because she appeared as a polio-cured guest on that final telethon, presumes she has a special connection to them. However, in imagining herself to be involved with the story, her self-absorbed mindset clouds the fact that she understands nothing about their relationship. It is only after a regrettably Alice in Wonderland-themed drug experience, when her ego is eroded, that she is able to ponder the facts surrounding the murder from outside herself.
That forthrightness and authenticity are rare commodities in the Hollywood of the ‘50s, ‘70s, or today is hardly shocking. That Egoyan gives in to stale genre tropes in the final portion of the film is disappointing. In The Sweet Hereafter and Felicia’s Journey, he showed a kind of Hitchcockian patience and used a classically novelistic structure, such that emotional arcs dictated action. In these films, it is no shock that certain truths are being obscured, but the manner in which they are revealed helps to chart ways of dealing with grief and guilt.
Through Karen, Where the Truth Lies reflects and investigates a society in love with celebrity. By urging us to feel connected and wanted within this world, the entertainment industry distorts our ability to pursue life on anything other than larger-than-life terms. They are extreme examples of our tendency to build personae to guard our tender emotions.
So, Karen’s initial, sensationalistic impulses lead her to seek out the “big story” in whatever manner possible. However, she soon becomes a medium thought which the plot is worked out and as the film thuds past one groan-inducing twist to the next, instead of offering a nuanced alternative, the film reinforces this desire for sensationalism, bypassing any practical insights into how distorting the truth affects anyone and leaving us with clichés as lifeless as the closing scene’s studio back lot.