It's definitely better if professionals know more than laypeople do about their chosen field. I'm not going to tell a bartender how to make a drink, and I don't expect to be shaken awake during an operation by a surgeon who needs my help. That's why it was very disconcerting to watch acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's rather engrossing new whodunit, Where the Truth Lies, only to realize early on that he had made a fatal mistake.
We meet the unbridled Lanny Morris (the unparalleled Kevin Bacon) and the somewhat restrained Vince Collins (Colin Firth, perfect in the less showy role), a comedy team in the mold of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, as they're about to kick off the 1957 Veteran's Day Polio Telethon (get it?). Something is obviously troubling the two men, their faces flickering with mad, sad, pensive, and scared, but if crowd reaction is any indication, they are at the pinnacle of their popularity. Morris and Collins will mug and pander the money out of people for the duration of the charity event, and soon after they will go their separate ways. For 15 years, only one person will know exactly how their dead blonde playmate got that way just prior to showtime.
Flash forward to 1972, where a journalist named Karen (Alison Lohman) is trying to piece together the Morris-Collins split. She's got a healthy publishing advance, convenient ethics, and access to Collins, who has agreed to tell his story. Morris is penning his memoirs as well, portions of which have been finding their way to Karen. And in one of those only-in-the-movies type of coincidences, Karen has met the men before. She'll shake the skeletons out of their closet but risk becoming part of the story.
The serious slip I refer to, though, is the casting of Lohman. She's been impressive in films like White Oleander and Big Fish, but she's all wrong here. I think I know what Lohman was trying to do: Probably feeling pigeonholed as the wide-eyed naïf, she was looking for an NC-17 role where she could ditch the clothes and encircle her legs around the hips or head of whoever's in the scene. It's called Anna Paquin Syndrome, and it rarely works.
But Bacon and Firth, as always, are dynamite. Production design, from the gleaming Art Deco of 1950s Miami to the polyester drabness of the 1970s, is also faultless. The convoluted plot and jumparounds in time are a little off-putting, though forgivable, as is the irritating narration and obtrusive music. For some odd reason, it's easy to get involved in Truth despite its numerous flaws.
But I haven't even told you the most horrifying part. For the past five days or so I've had "The Piña Colada Song" scampering through my head on a continuous loop. Rupert Holmes, who wrote the book on which Truth is based, is the same diabolical mind behind that pop trifle, and once I learned this semi-interesting bit of trivia, the chorus latched onto my brain like a bloodthirsty tick. So now I'm passing this factoid on to you, because misery absolutely adores company.
Would you like to spend a year in Fiji running a one-screen movie theater? Watching films you programmed with 300 of your new best friends by tropical night and relaxing by sunny day sounds good in theory, but John Pierson and his family actually put it in practice. Documentary filmmaker Steve James (Hoop Dreams) showed up to memorialize the Pierson family's last days abroad, and the result is Reel Paradise.
John is an independent film muckety-muck with an eye for talent (jump-starting the careers of Spike Lee and Michael Moore), a way with words (writing the definitive indie film primer Spike, Mike, Slackers and Dykes), and a highly adaptable family (wife Janet, petulant daughter Georgia, and his sharp boy Wyatt). While in Fiji John shows free movies every night at the 50-year-old 180 Meridian Cinema, the kids go to school and hang with friends, and Janet wrestles with her white liberal guilt.
Paradise is as much about the changeable dynamic within the Pierson family as it is about the culture clash between American movies and island ways. Physical comedy is popular (Jackass: The Movie was a huge hit), though the more cerebral films aren't as successful ("How many people do you think stayed awake during Gangs of New York?" asks Wyatt). John's 7:30 start time eats into 7 p.m. Mass, much to the dismay of the missionaries, while the Pierson home gets robbed and Georgia's shortsightedness threatens her best friend's reputation. Just another day in Paradise.
Where the Truth Lies (NR), directed by Atom Egoyan, opens Friday, November 4, at the Little Theatres | Reel Paradise, directed by Steve James, screens Saturday, November 5, at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre.