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Truth and consequences 

Where the Truth Lies riffs on comedy duo's split

Every one loves a good showbiz mystery. Unsolved crimes, scandals and bizarre behavior feed a cottage industry of basic-cable documentaries and books such as Hollywood Babylon. As Tinseltown enigmas go, the breakup of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis can't compare with, say, the deaths of Marilyn Monroe or Bob Crane. But questions about the super-successful comedy team's falling out have never been put to rest.

Lewis breaks his silence on the subject with a new memoir, Dean & Me: A Love Story, being published almost simultaneously with the release of the film Where the Truth Lies. In Atom Egoyan's mystery, dripping with Hollywood noir, rival manuscripts reveal blackmail and murder behind the collapse of comedy headliners clearly based on Martin and Lewis.

The film's twosome differ slightly from the originals. Debonair English straight man Vince Collins (Colin Firth) sets up jokes for wacky Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon), whose stage persona resembles a horny juvenile delinquent (as opposed to Lewis' hyperactive, prepubescent monkey-boy). The weekend of "The Veteran's Day Polio Telethon" finds them at the height of their fame, but when young, nude Maureen O'Flaherty (Rachel Blanchard) is found dead in their hotel bathtub, the partners dissolve.

The film switches between the fateful weekend in the late 1950s and "present-day" 1972 as ambitious writer Karen O'Connor (Alison Lohman) preps to interview Vince for a book about the girl's death and the comedy duo's breakup, despite his long-standing refusal to speak on the record. Meanwhile, Karen receives mysterious chapters of Lanny's own tell-all memoir -- and forms a relationship with him while concealing her identity as a writer.

As in Egoyan's other films, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, the more you learn, the less you know. Karen hears conflicting stories about what happened the weekend of the telethon, and we discover that, as a girl, she was a chance bystander at the comic duo's finest hour. The grown-up Karen embodies the fraught relationship between fan and celebrity, proving that youthful worshipper, star-fucking groupie and resentful character assassin can go hand-in-hand.

Egoyan delights in exploring the discrepancies between a person's public and private face, but he burdens Lohman's character with so much thematic baggage, it's not surprising the actress can't carry it all. Karen's meant to be out of her depth in a glitzy world, worthy of James Ellroy, where moral rules don't apply. The film symbolically compares her to Alice in Wonderland (and pointedly uses Jefferson Airplane's druggy "White Rabbit"). But Karen should also be a woman with enough moxie to command the attention of showbiz royalty like Vince and Lanny. Lohman seems more like someone they'd eat for breakfast in bed. Blanchard, by contrast, finds the femme fatale beneath Maureen's star-struck naiveté.

Egoyan's self-conscious Hitchcock imitations become increasingly hard to swallow in the Karen plot, but the parts of the film set in the '50s shimmer. Egoyan's script is based on a novel by Rupert Holmes -- yes, the guy who did the "Piña Colada" song -- and it provides a gossipy but convincing glimpse at the doings of pop stars and has-beens. An edge-of-the-stage adrenaline infuses scenes between the two celebrities as they drink deep of such perks as power, drugs and sex. Especially sex: Where the Truth Lies' exhibitionism earned it an NC-17 rating, although the filmmakers opted to release it unrated. Where the Truth Lies reveals how sex is part of the currency of fame, but also acknowledges the taboos that can destroy a career.

Firth and Bacon shrewdly capture Vince and Lanny's protective yet competitive dynamics before and after their split. Bacon gives an especially pungent portrayal of showbiz arrogance, and in the later years, without imitating Lewis outright, perfectly conveys the testy, privileged demeanor of Jerry, the self-important artiste. As the aging funnyman, Bacon conveys an essential loneliness, as if Vince was the last person who truly understood him. Lanny learns that losing normal, trusting relationships is part of fame's steep price.

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