2005 TIFF Update #8: "Whodunnit?"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Thursday, September 15, 2005

As far as I'm concerned, murder mysteries are mostly the province of novels and mini-series. For a mystery to work, we need time to get to know the characters - far more time than is allowed in the two-hour span of the average motion picture. Over the years, there have been exceptions, but they are rare. This year, a couple of Toronto offerings had me wondering whether one or more of those exceptions might be waiting in the wings. After all, consider the directors: Iceland's Baltasar Kormakur and Canada's Atom Egoyan.

A Little Trip to Heaven takes place in the small town of Hastings, Minnesota during the mid-1980s. Baltasar Kormakur, who made his international mark with 101 Reykjavik, shifts his focus to the United States for this whodunnit? The problem with his film is that it at times focuses too much on the procedural aspects of a murder mystery and too little on the people. Relationships are not given enough time to develop; as a result, some of them seem to spring to life out of thin air. And the mystery is straightforward. There's little suspense or momentum to drive the narrative forward. At times, it stalls. And there are stretches when Kormakur is more interested in atmosphere than story. (He gets some beautiful shots of unusual landscapes, making me think that parts of Iceland were standing in for Minnesota.)

The film starts strongly, with no less than three crashes in the first 15 minutes. One car goes careening off a cliff into the water. Another car impacts at high speed into the side of a tunnel. And a bus crashes into a vehicle on a city street. Enter Holt (Forrest Whitaker), an insurance claims investigator. Circumstantial evidence associated with the tunnel crash indicates that a body found inside the car belongs to con artist Kelvin Anderson. His sister, Isold (Julia Stiles), is the beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy. She has "hit the jackpot." But, although the police are satisifed that it's an open-and-shut case, Holt isn't so sure. His investigation focuses on Isold and her husband, Frank (Jeremy Renner). As the clues mount, Holt realizes that one of both of them has something to hide, the body in the car may not be Kelvin's, and the crash may not have been accidental.

The elements all seem to be in place for an engaging motion picture, but the slow pace saps its energy. A Little Trip to Heaven misses an opportunity to really skewer the insurance industry. It does a little of this, showing how people like Holt are paid to find ways whereby claims can be invalidated or smaller settlements can be made. The ironic ending also lacks punch, in large part because not enough time is spent developing the relationships necessary to give it impact.

The actors do fine jobs. Forrest Whitaker, dressed in natty clothes that suggest a homeless man's attire (even though he has a job, a car, and a residence), radiates the kind of world-weariness we might expect from someone who trades on human misery. Julia Stiles makes Isold naturally likeable, with a hint of vulnerability, even though she may be involved in a big scam. (Isold's introductory scene, in which she breaks both legs of her companion, leaves an impression.) And Jeremy Renner's portrayal lets us know immediately that Frank is a sleazy guy.

There's a political subtext to this movie. After all, it takes place early during Ronald Reagan's second term, when the Republican administration was turning more towards the rights of corporations over individuals. Holt begins by representing the former, but ends in the murky twilight that exists between them. However, by spending so much time following Holt through every step of his investigation, no matter how mundane, Baltasar distances us from the characters. That's his biggest misstep, and it's what prevents A Little Piece of Heaven from being satisfying.

One could make a case that Atom Egoyan is Canada's best known director. Only David Cronenberg and Don McKellar come close. Egoyan's films, which arrive in roughly three-year intervals, usually have their World Premieres at Cannes and their North American Premieres at Toronto. So it is with his latest, Where the Truth Lies. But, even before it screened for critics, there were danger signs. The buzz from Cannes was not positive, and Egoyan had been bypassed for the honor of Opening Night Gala in favor of Water. (His previous three movies, Ararat, Felicia's Journey, The Sweet Hereafter, had opened Toronto.)

Welcome to the lurid world of Atom Egoyan, B-grade schlock filmmaker. Until seeing Where the Truth Lies, I never would have considered applying this title to Egoyan, the eclectic filmmaker of some of the '90s most compelling features. But the evidence speaks for itself. Where the Truth Lies is a potboiler - a whodunnit/whydunnit filled to the brim with genre clichés. It's compelling in the way many B-movies are - cheap, sleazy, and lacking the depth we have come to associate with this director.

The difference between a good potboiler and a bad one comes down to tone, and Egoyan chooses the wrong approach. Where the Truth Lies is slow and dreamy when it should be light and self-mocking. This is Brian De Palma material. The plotline is pure cheese down to the incessant voiceover and needlessly explicit exposition. The add proverbial insult to injury, not only is the movie poorly written, but it is at times boring.

The year is 1972. Journalist Karen O'Connor (Alison Lohman) is writing a tell-all book about her girlhood heroes: '50s variety show hosts Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon) and Vince Collins (Colin Firth). A Yank and a Brit, they played off one another well - Lanny as pleasure and Vince as control. There are two subjects that interest Karen in particular, why the Martin-and-Lewis-esque team broke up and what the real story was behind the death of a young woman (Rachel Blanchard) whose body was found in the bathtub of their hotel suite 15 years ago. To get the information she needs, Karen cultivates relationships with both men - a professional one with Vince and a sexual one with Lanny. The deeper she digs, the more unsavory are the details she uncovers about a night of unbridled sex in a Miami hotel room.

As is typically the case with this type of movie, the plot is founded on contrivances. Even if you accept these, Where the Truth Lies isn't airtight. Thematically, there's a void. Initially, it looks like Egoyan may be making a statement about the public versus private personas of celebrities ("Having to be a nice guy is the toughest job in the world when you aren't"), but this is quickly abandoned. Character development is perfunctory - there's just enough to satisfy the narrative.

Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon give exceptional performances. They are better than the material deserves. Firth represents reserved cool and Bacon is rakish charm. Alison Lohman is miscast. Not only is she too young to be convincing, but her performance is amateurish. I blame this on Egoyan, since Lohman impressed in two earlier movies, White Oleander and Matchstick Men.

The silver lining is that the movie is loaded with sex and nudity. At least four women bare breasts (and more), and both Firth and Bacon show quite a bit. Supposedly, a "key" threesome is the reason for the film's NC-17 rating, but I found this sequence to be surprisingly tame. I guess the MPAA becomes skittish when a sex scene has both homosexual and heterosexual connotations. However, if the blue elements of Where the Truth Lies are not enough to keep you involved, the movie fails. Egoyan's magic with images and Mychael Danna's haunting scores aren't enough to salvage a plot that might seem to silly for even the average dime novel.

Where the Truth Lies takes a lurid look behind the scenes of a television show. Also peering behind the curtain is Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, although in this case, the thrust is much different. There are no mysteries or whodunnits in Tristram Shandy; it's more interested in provoking laughter than misdirection.

Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story is a strange movie. It's about two-thirds behind-the-scenes "footage" of the making of a movie based on an "unfilmable" novel, and about one-third content from this adaptation. (A film-within-a-film.) The tone is lighthearted and the performances are effective but, in the end, the feature is so inconsequential as to leave no lasting impression.

Perhaps Tristram Shandy is unfilmable. By making the movie in this fashion, Winterbottom has ventured an opinion that this is the case. This film is more about the making of the feature than telling Tristram's story. We see some of Tristram Shandy - scenes associated with the title character's conception and birth - but the rest of the picture is about script rewrites, dealing with budget limitations, and actor Steve Coogan's attempts to have sex with his girlfriend, Jenny (Kelly Macdonald). There are some winning comedic vignettes - Coogan coping with low-budget special effects by hanging upside-down in a "see-through womb," the discussion that results in Gillian Anderson joining the production as the Widow Wadman, and a make-up room chat between Coogan and Rob Brydon about noses and teeth.

"Slight" is the best way to describe Tristram Shandy. That's a departure for Winterbottom, who is best known for heavy fare (Jude, Wonderland). The level of nudity is minimal (Keely Hawes' bare butt) - a contrast with the director's previous 9 Songs, which was explicit art porn. This seems almost like an interim movie - something thrown together before Winterbottom starts his next serious effort.

The actors treat the material with respect, both those who play fictionalized versions of themselves and those who play the creations of Winterbottom and screenwriter Martin Hardy. Steve Coogan is the lead, and proves to be a good sport, allowing himself (and his ego) to be ridiculed. Kelly Macdonald and Naomie Harris are standouts, exhibiting plenty of sex appeal in addition to acting ability. And some relatively large names - Jeremy Northam, Stephen Fry, Gillian Anderson - fit into small parts.

Tristram Shandy is enjoyable in a non-demanding way, but it's not the kind of motion picture that will attract widespread appeal or be remembered long after its release. And anyone expecting a legitimate adaptation of Laurence Sterne's book will be unhappy with the final result. For others, it's an amiable diversion, but nothing more.

© 2005 James Berardinelli

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