What kind of trouble are we in when the most sexually explicit mainstream film of the year is also the least provocative? Such is the conundrum created by Atom Egoyan's Where the Truth Lies, which has caused much controversy since its premiere at Cannes. The rumpus surrounds its his-on-his-on-hers climax – which, significantly, if somewhat ironically, all three parties emerge from unsated. The MPAA reportedly offered Egoyan and distributor ThinkFilm an R rating if the director promised to shorten the offending sex scene by an unspecified number of thrusts; Egoyan refused, on the grounds that the scene was crucial to the plot – and, as he shot it all in one take, he had nothing to cut away to.
Let me soothe your worried brain by telling you right from go that the threesome in question is, in fact, integral to the plot, in that it literalizes what only the inattentive and irony deficient would have otherwise missed. And, save for a junk cutaway to three attractive people trying to open a bottle of champagne and failing miserably, Egoyan would have been hard pressed to shave the scene in any way. But despite all the careful work that's gone into its choreography and design, the big sex scene is one of the few moments of Truth that *doesn't* read as obscene (or, at least, obscenely overdone) and that's something of a problem. Egoyan drowns his film in rococo sexual decoration, leaving no room for the tension that makes sex sexy. Where the Truth Lies is the worst kind of tease: all over-the-top come-on with nothing to say, it spends itself long before the main event. It's pretty enough, but my, it bores.
Truth, based on a novel by Rupert Holmes, is a double-period meta-mess. The film stars Allison Lohman as Karen O'Connor, a budding investigative journalist determined to make a name for herself by dredging up two half-forgotten stars and getting them to spill the secrets on the scandal that scarred their lives and careers. And so we flashback to the late 50s: Vince Collins (Colin Firth) and Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) are a musical comedy duo in the vein of Martin and Lewis. They live in that odd, Rat Pack-concurrent pocket of time in which hard-drinkin' cads could simultaneously function as genuine American heros; their public pays to see a little bad behavoir, but they also make the fatal mistake of assuming that men like Lanny and Vince are really "nice guys" underneath the professional facade. That assumption has to be literally thrown out with the bathwater when, the morning after hosting a weekend-long polio telethon, the boys enter their hotel suite to find a dead, naked blonde in the bathtub. Though both Lanny and Vince have airtight alibis and no charges are ever filed, they never work together again.
Cut back (or, I guess, forward) to the 70s: Karen's publisher has offered a very cagey Vince $1 million for his story. Though she's been told that Lanny's working on his own book and will never talk to her, Karen hops on the case like a slutty Nancy Drew. "I thought I was the kind of person who could always maintain control," Karen says in one of many voiceovers that shoot for mid-century melodrama but land somewhere near the feet of a Lifetime original series. Would you be shocked to discover that she thought wrong? "Career girls," Lanny informs us in his own cringe-worthy voiceover, are "the easiest lay in this great country of ours." Karen is nothing if not focused on her career.
Egoyan's got a couple of good cards, but he holds on to them for way too long; when we finally find out for sure where the truth does, in fact, lie, it's in a far more boring place than the already crushingly obvious subtext has led us to believe. And waiting for the protagonists to unearth the "secrets" that Egoyan draws bright red circles around all the way through can be excruciating. Lannie gives a good deal of the game away early on when he tells us that Morris and Collins are a "boy-girl act": Vince the suave, suited gentleman, protecting and tempering Lanny, the nutty dame. A typical night, we're told, involves one or the other "boffing ladies and bashing gentlemen"; when a heckler sprays Lanny with anti-Semitic invective and Vince smoothly and efficiently transports the unwitting smartmouth backstage to pound his face in, we immediately wrap our heads around a dynamic that the film waits another 100 minutes to officially reveal.
Where the Truth Lies looks and feels like Douglas Sirk on crack. That's not a lazy turn of phrase: much attention is paid to Lanny and Vince's dependence on uppers and downers to help them get through the daily celebrity grind, and the film mimics their chemically unbalanced cycles. The pacing shifts abruptly, from slow and Tuinal-sexy, to Dexy-hyper and irritating – with little regard to the constant, schizophrenic shuttling of the narrative between That Night and The Present. And every frame is overdone; every face is overmade, every set over dressed. There's so much goop on Lohman's eyelids, they threaten to split with every blink. There's always a lot to look at, enough so that I never lost interest completely, but once the pleasant shock of copius full-frontal nudity wears off, there's never very much to see.
Oh, yes - the nudity. It's ludicrous that the threesome is causing all the controversy, because it's the least explicit of several sex scenes in the film, and honestly the least interesting. If I was on a ratings board, and I *had* to pick something to get mad about, I'd be much more likely to direct my wrath towards the ridiculous lesbian scene. It comes out of nowhere – I honestly thought the projectionist might have accidentally switched a reel – and it goes beyond thrusting or full-frontal nudity, although there's some of that too. There's one shot, towards the end of the sequence, that, whilst completely genitalia-free, is still the single most explicit depiction of cunnilingus that I've ever seen on screen. Egoyan takes every opportunity he can to decorate the procedings with scantily clad girls: live mermaids swim through backdrops; entire conversations are conducted in the altogether. There are several points in which the narrative just shuts down, so that a woman can stop and allow the camera to admire her for moments on end before she moves into a scene. What's shocking is not the nudity itself, but the fact that none of these human objects d'arte are imbued with enough intelligence to transcend their status as set dressing. This is especially frustrating in the case of Lohman, whose character - an ostensible protagonist - doesn't seem to have a brain in her admittedly very pretty little head. She exercises extraordinary stupidity in the name of sexual liberation, to the point where her victimization is played for laughs. I'm really not one to point fingers and cry "Misogyny ahoy!", but Egoyan's made a film that makes it difficult not to.
But I still find it hard rousing myself to get upset about Where the Truth Lies. It's a silly film, overlong and packed with unbearable miscalculations. But the most painful thing about it is that it actually lacks teeth; though it tries, it really can't hurt you. Especially if you like naked girls.