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Road Worriers: Alison Lohman and Kevin Bacon take a ride into the past in 'Where the Truth Lies.'

Alison in Blunderland

Atom Egoyan's 'Where the Truth Lies' explains the splitting of Martin and Lewis for the very credulous

By Richard von Busack

CENSORSHIP ennobles a work of art, whether it deserves it or not. While passages of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer still make the heart sing, it might be hard to find the kind of rhapsodizing printed on the back flap of a Grove Press edition of 1961: Lawrence Durrell's claim that Miller's best-known book ranks with Moby-Dick. Smuggled goods always taste the sweetest, and the easy availability of Miller's book today has dimmed its aura.

Where the Truth Lies, the new movie by the very talented Atom Egoyan, failed the R test and is being released as NC-17. There must be an audience that rushes out to see anything with that kiss-of-death rating, even if just for prurient reasons—which are honest enough.

The enfeebled and puritanical MPAA still has its clout. There are still newspapers that won't advertise NC-17 movies and rental stores that won't carry them. Happily, websites and online commerce may be able to end-run this censorship.

In the case of Where the Truth Lies, the MPAA's beef seems to have been about the most essential scene in the movie. The scene is intact—or seems to be. But all the gossip has spoiled the mystery of the film—such as it was—and that's an additional blow this movie doesn't need.

Even if the tip-off hadn't been there, what could have been done to fix Where the Truth Lies? It gives no pleasure to report that Egoyan—who directed just about the best movie of the 1990s, The Sweet Hereafter—could be the chef of such a genuine plate of tripe.

The film is based on a sordid novel by Rupert Holmes—a librettist and songwriter whom we can thank for "Escape" (The Piña Colada Song). Based in 1972, it tells the story of reporter Karen O'Connor (Alison Lohman of Matchstick Men, too credulous, too young, too much).

Karen interviews Vince Collins (Colin Firth) for a Q&A memoir that he is being paid a million dollars for. In his more famous days, Collins was the Martin part of a Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis-style act. His estranged partner, the act's monkey, was Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon). In happier times, the two did telethons and played mafia nightclubs, until their inexplicable separation.

What Collins doesn't realize is that he and Karen met back when she was but a child. She was a polio-stricken guest on the telethon and hero-worshipped the duet. Unearthing the story of a murder they were complicit in is a bad shock to her entire belief system.

The subject matter is, basically, trash. Still, the Vaselined gleam on the past and the thrifty re-creations of the 1950s and 1970s are a credit to Egoyan. For not much money, he gives us a thorough look at vintage lounges, shiny private planes and the royal blue, gold-leaf and plastic-swag-lamp era of interior decoration. And there is exactly one arresting shot, a 90-degree tilt of the camera as a dead girl's face morphs into the face of the shock-stricken Karen.

Still, Lohman plays the lead role with remarkable vapidness. Her expressions are so uncommunicative that the soundtrack is patched with voiceovers. When she's on the telethon, she tells us, "It was a moment seen by millions of people but felt only by me." Watching Collins' faithful flunky light a cigarette, she notes, "The valet's attentiveness was impressive."

Egoyan's entire career since Family Viewing has delved into the difference between fabricated stories and reality. Thus the butting up of the words "Truth" and "Lies" in this film's title. His too-little-seen Ararat went furthest, asking the question of whether a movie recording a holocaust can be worth making or worth watching.

Where the Truth Lies is about specific sordid celebrity behavior. If it has any depth, it is just that it suggests that the truth about people who cruise after celebs is that they want to drag their heroes down to their own desperate level. Is that enough for a movie? The specifics of the Collins-Morris coverup don't have any resonance. We hardly expect Vegas-era celebs to be chaste, and the revelations of popping Tuinals and amphetamine-spurred rage aren't going to rattle anyone's cage.

Egoyan delivers pretentious softcore—a natural for "Adult Situations Theater" on cable in Midwestern hotel rooms. The male gaze is catered to, if skimpily: a few lingerie shots and Firth, outfitted with vintage Nixon-era sideburns and 'stache, puffing away on a reefer as a couple of drugged girls go to town on each other for his pervy delectation. This may be the first Alice in Wonderland-themed drug scene in 35 years (complete with "White Rabbit" on the soundtrack!).

Alice in Wonderland ends with "It was all a dream." I don't want to blow the twist ending of Where the Truth Lies, but it's the second-most-stupid ending after "It was all a dream"—an ending so vastly clichéd that it's been a punch line for decades. See this movie, and the joke's on you.

Where the Truth Lies (NC-17; 108 min.), directed by Atom Egoyan, written by Egoyan, based on the novel by Rupert Holmes, photographed by Paul Sarossy and starring Kevin Bacon, Colin Firth and Alison Lohman, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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