A surprise, and a good one: the most fun movie playing right now comes from Atom Egoyan, of all people. Whereas his previous Ararat was august and sorrowful, his new Where the Truth Lies is loose and impish, built upon a lurid, Hollywood Babylon what-if: could the breakup of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis duo, then at the zenith of their fame, have been triggered by a Fatty Arbucklesque murder? Kenneth Anger let it slide, so Rupert Holmes juiced it up for his 2003 crime novel and Egoyan served it through a filter of mock-Scorsese sizzle -- in one of the lush '50s reconstructions, crooning smoothie (and Dino figure) Vince Collins (Colin Firth) takes out the nightclub patron who offended his clowning partner Jerry, err, Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon), slams the bloke's head on the floor, then rushes back to the stage to finish a song by his bud. Tinseltown tawdriness is always photogenic, but soon enough the narrative is molded into the absent-protagonist structure preferred by Egoyan, here the young room-service gal (Rachel Blanchard) who ends up a naked corpse curled up in the duo's hotel room bathtub. What's happened? Alison Lohman, an ambitious young journalist, wants to know some fifteen years later (1972, to be exact), so she sets out to interview the two estranged celebrities for an upcoming tell-all, which naturally means fucking Lanny and tripping with Vince.
A metaphysical whodunit, but also, befitting the title, a contemplation of not just where truth lies, but of the illumination and suffering the truth can cause as it is unveiled, layer by layer. Rashomon is predictably evoked by reviewers, but remembering (or, rather, fighting to not forget) has always been a staple of Egoyan's moody meditations on identity and intertwined lives, clues and details given then reconsidered, particularly if fed through screen monitors. Indeed, if the plot has a center, it's in the telethon hosted by the entertainers just as their scandal is about to boil over, the key moment captured by a gaggle of prying TV cameras but shared only between Bacon and Lohman, who, donning the blue Alice in Wonderland frock, reads a saccharine composition as a prepubescent incarnation of her character. To keep with the Lewis Carroll motif, Firth and the grown Lohman wear bunny ears to a children's pageant, Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" woozily played by the band and warbled by yet another Alice, who's to later materialize to eat out the sleuthing reporter while Firth watches. A ménage-a-trois is promised, but only delivered in the final flashback between the two wacky guys and Blanchard, or at least until the rabbit goes up the wrong hole, a sacrificial lamb is needed to uphold showbiz ideals, and the MPAA slaps the NC-17 tag. "Gods," a "boy-girl act," strolls through empty studio backlots, boxes filled with lobsters -- where does the truth lie? In Egoyan's dizzy puzzler, it's all in the camera's eye, frustrating, teasing, wrenching.
Where the Truth Lies hinges on a puckish alternate history, though North Country traffics in far more gruesome terrain: "Inspired by a true story." Zzzzzzz. So inspirational it should mate with Cinderella Man and give birth to a litter of baby Oscars, the movie gives it to ya between the eyes right from the start -- Charlize Theron, dowded down, tells the camera to "wear my shoes. Then tell me 'tough.'" Hollywood magic and all that, but mannequin-chic Theron would more likely shrivel up in the mines of Northern Minnesota where her battered, working-class heroine, shacked up with her folks (Richard Jenkins, Sissy Spacek) while on the run from her abusive beau, decides to brave the odds (30 guys for every gal) and learn the trade. Chauvinistic groping, razzing and jabbing right and left, "cunts" scrawled on walls, dildos stuck in lunchboxes, the ol' rocking porta-potty gag, cum inside lockers -- plucky Theron endures, yet all she gets from the boss (office plastered with bikinied pin-ups, natch) is "you got no business being here... Take it like a man." Enough is enough, so she decides to do the Rae-Silkwood-Brockovich thing and take on the company in the country's first class action sexual harassment suit, hockey-player-turned-lawyer Woody Harrelson by her side. Easier said than done, for none of the women (including Theron's pal Frances McDormand, a scrapper increasingly paralyzed with Lou Gehrig's) wants to risk losing their job, and the heroine herself has been pegged as a troublemaking slut.
The basis here is real-life miner Lois Jenson, but director Niki Caro, who already milked female perspective for class condescension and bogus feminism in the twee critics'-darling Whale Rider, has the Hollywood-underdog blueprint in mind, with all the bases covered: big scenes, swelling chorales, trial denouement. One good shot: Michelle Monaghan randily walking toward Harrelson in a honky-tonk as Bob Dylan crows "Lay, Lady, Lay" on the soundtrack. Other than that, just aerial shots of sinister machinery scarring the landscape, the better to accentuate the star's glamorously unglamorous close-ups. (No Monster pancake, at least; Charlize, don't have yourself because you're beautiful.) No less than Where the Truth Lies, North Country moves toward the excavation of a half-buried past, yet the effect is more insidious -- at the trial, it comes to the fore that Theron was raped in high school, the fruit of which became the sullen son now calling her "whore" along with the townsfolk. The truth comes out, mostly so that every soul bathing her in scorn can miraculously stand up for the wronged martyr, a "slut" who's really a saint. Hold on... wasn't the trial about sexual harassment? Must be, for Caro keeps white noise from the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas case buzzing in the telly, but God forbid the movie should put halos around a woman who actually enjoyed sleeping around. For once, the MPAA isn't to blame -- the film's circumscribed prudery comes from within, right next to its political fuzziness and shameless manipulation.
Even more than prole-playing, celebrity impersonation is a role on a plate for the narcissist actor. Truman Capote was a cartoon already; in Capote, Philip Seymour Hoffman, much more handsome than the gnomish writer, has a field day with the gurgling purr, the slouch, the glasses, the extravagant awareness of the man's own brilliance. A party trick, really, no matter how meticulous, for Capote's talent was in the pages, particularly In Cold Blood, the "non-fiction novel" that, according to the film, made his career and finally stole his soul. The movie covers the creation of the book from the late '50s to mid-'60s, opening on the desolate Kansas site of a family's brutal murder, then finding Capote amid New York cocktails, camping it up for the New Yorker crowd. Transplanted to the South, pink-pale face swathed in yellow scarves, he's escorted by fellow novelist Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) and befriends the killers he's reporting on, most notably Perry Smith (Clifton Collins, Jr.). A manipulative, flaming raconteur and a doleful, murderous orphan united in otherness, yet any erotic frisson between the two is readily muffled by director Bennett Miller's elliptical dryness, which aims for starkness but ends up as tastefulness. All that's left is Hoffman's precise technique on a legendary viper who, even when watching a man's execution, knew it was all about him.
Reviewed October 27, 2005.