Where the Truth Lies (18) <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

An orgy of failures
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What an awful title. It wants to be teasing, but drags as heavy as lead boots. It's true that Atom Egoyan has adapted it from a novel of the same name, but since this director's approach to story is distinguished by a gradual whittling down of "where the truth lies", one might have hoped he'd change it to something more oblique. The Big Sleep. The Lady in the Lake. The Long Goodbye. Chandler understood how all the best mystery stories begin with the title. Fundamentally, Where the Truth Lies asks "Whodunnit?" but in such a way as to discourage any temptation to find out. I should add that the novel was written by Rupert Holmes, the same man who composed the hit single "Escape," otherwise known as "The Pina Colada Song". Draw your own conclusions.

The film's set-up is more promising. It shuttles between two time frames: in the late 1950s, Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth) are a hugely popular double-act, the former playing a manic goofball to the latter's clipped gentleman of the old school. Their partnership combusts when a chambermaid is found dead in their hotel bathtub, amid rumours of drugs and orgies. Cut to the early 1970s, and an ambitious young journalist, Karen (Alison Lohman), is winkling out the facts for a cover story on why the two friends split, who did what and (duh) where the truth lies. In the way of such things, she finds out more than she probably wanted to.

As he did in two of his best films, Exotica (1994) and The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Egoyan asks the audience to play detective and sort out the fragments of evidence from the falsehoods. The difference here is that much of that evidence is presented in voiceover, which was perhaps intended to clarify the mixture of written memoir and flashback, but instead fatally distances us from the drama.

Some voiceovers, such as Fred MacMurray's in Double Indemnity, become an inextricable part of a movie's texture. Here one gets the impression that Egoyan doesn't quite trust the audience to grasp what's going on - either because he considers the material too knotty or he hasn't sufficient confidence in his cast. He has good reason to worry on the latter score. Putting Bacon and Firth together must have seemed a bold idea. Unfortunately, the pair don't really click, and Egoyan shows so little of their stage act that one wonders whether he thought so, too.

I could buy Bacon as the energetic "Mr Entertainment", but Firth as a pill-popping David Niven-type with pugilist tendencies was too much of a stretch. Their look isn't quite right, either. They just about pass muster as the stars in their showbiz prime, but in the 1970s sequences both could have been a lot braver in suggesting the gone-to-seed vanity of yesterday's men - some really nasty clothes would have helped.

I could believe in Lohman as a journalist, if only the journal happened to be The Girl Guides' Gazette. It must be difficult to wade through a sump of sex, drugs and murder when you look like Holly Hunter's tiny sister.

The tidemark in that sump keeps rising. We learn that Vince would pop Tuinols to make him "horny", while Lanny would tip the wink to his butler (David Hayman) as to which women he wanted plucking from the audience for his pleasure later. We see a fair bit of jouncing nudity, climaxing, as it were, in what might be the most unerotic threesome ever enacted in movies. (And - wouldn't you know? - it's the goddamn limey who turns out to swing both ways.)

As the story's closet-rattling gets louder, Egoyan rivets home an accompanying point about the media: celebrity misdemeanours once shielded from the public view are fair game in the harsher climate of the 1970s. But given the fiesta of sleaze that's exposed, one isn't likely to raise a lament for the bygone virtues of tact and discretion.

What's puzzling about the film is that, however thickly it lays on the intrigue, we never feel a commensurate surge in the dramatic temperature. Egoyan and his team work hard to recreate the golden age of charity telethons, lounge acts and the sponsorship of Vegas mobsters, but they can't fake the pulse of human life.

Lohman's journalist, pursuing her investigation, discovers that the truth is rarely pure and never simple; but for the sake of argument it lies buried in a Miami hotel suite, somewhere between the sofa and a crate of lobsters. The details I leave for you to discover: what cannot be ignored is the film's overwhelmingly cynical portrait of America, a nation of money-grubbers, apparently, from the journalists right down to the valets and chambermaids.

Can this indictment really have issued from the same pen that once wrote, in "The Pina Colada Song", "If you like makin' love at midnight, in the dunes of the cape/ You're the lady I'm lookin' for, come with me and escape"? Maybe that's what a lifetime in showbusiness does to you.