Grade: C

It’s probably a bit of serendipity that Atom Egoyan’s “Where The Truth Lies” has reached theatres just as Jerry Lewis’ print memoir of his career with Dean Martin is being released, but the coincidence certainly can’t help but bring the movie some added attention. Based on a novel by Rupert Holmes, it involves the scandalous reasons behind the breakup of a 1950s comedy team obviously modeled on Martin and Lewis.

Presented in “Citizen Kane” style as an investigation conducted some fifteen years after the event (the breakup supposedly occurred in 1957, with a book researcher uncovering what actually happened in 1972), it’s intended to be a cinematic puzzle whose pieces only gradually fall into place as narrative feints and sleights of hand are swept away–it’s hardly accidental that the words “truth” and “lies” are both included in the title–the picture is mostly fun to watch. But it’s also not much more than a cheeky stunt, not unlike Peter Bogdanovich’s “Cat’s Meow” in its effect (though that movie was based on an actual event). Coming from a director like Egoyan, “Where the Truth Lies” seems more divertissement than personal statement–which is what his previous pictures have been.

The stand-up duo here consists of Lanny Morris (Kevin Bacon), the wild, crazy guy, and Vince Collins (Colin Firth), the suave straight-man, and we first meet them as they’re finishing a 1957 telethon suspiciously similar to Lewis’ long-running muscular dystrophy efforts. Despite the fact that nothing that’s shown of the duo’s performance there (or in the nightclub routines also periodically presented) would suggest any real chemistry between the guys or any special quality that might endear them to audiences, they’re purportedly so huge a success that even a big-time mobster like Sally Sanmarco (Maury Chaykin, never really managing to seem genuinely threatening) insists that they play his hotel in order to draw guaranteed crowds. The pair seem to have a solid working relationship, but that’s shattered when the naked body of a young woman is discovered in the bathtub of their suite in Sanmarco’s palatial place, and they split up.

Fifteen years later, young Karen O’Connor (Alison Lohman) aims to make her mark in the publishing world by unraveling the mystery behind the death via a series of interviews with the reclusive Collins–a project that hardly endears her to Morris, with whom she arranges an “accidental” meeting but who dismisses her invitation to participate by telling her he’s working on a memoir of his own. As Karen’s queries expand, certain troublesome facts come to light. Vince, it appears, has a dark side that demonstrated itself in violent outbursts during the team’s heyday. And Lanny is an inveterate womanizer who has always rejoiced in using his celebrity (and his ever-loyal assistant Reuben, played by a stiffly officious David Hayman) to seduce attractive women–including, it becomes apparent, not only Karen herself but the girl whose death caused the rift between the men.

“Where The Truth Lies” eventually disclose what actually happened back in 1957, though it does so in a fractured, deviously contorted way that’s not nearly as clever as it wants to be, and the revelation turns out to be one of the hoariest of detective-story cliches. (Maybe that’s intended to be the joke, but it’s a pretty flat one.) The picture’s effectiveness is further hampered by the casting. Bacon is an extraordinarily talented actor who’s done some marvelous work lately, but he seems miscast here, never conveying Lanny’s manic disposition successfully (though he’s better at the man’s dark calculation). Similarly, Firth captures Collins’ dark side well enough, but the charm Vince is supposed to possess eludes him. And Lohman is simply bland–rather like a stiff version of Scarlett Johansson. (The investigator in “Kane” was, too, but at least he was kept in the shadows rather than pushed into the limelight.) And though in the rather brightly-lit, sumptuous cinematography of Paul Sarossy the picture looks lovely, the period detail often looks slightly off despite the yeoman efforts of production designer Phillip Barker, art directors Craig Lathrop and Lucy Richardson, and costume designer Beth Pasternak (though, to be fair, it would appear that all were working under budgetary limitations).

It’s a measure of the failure of “Where The Truth Lies” to get things quite right that when Morris and Collins finish their supposedly 1957 telethon, they do so by singing the great Sondheim-Styne song “Together.” It certainly fits. The only problem is that “Together” was written for the Ethel Merman musical “Gypsy,” which didn’t premiere until two years later. A period piece–even a lighthearted one–needs to get those kinds of details right. This one doesn’t–characteristic of a picture that, while superficially engaging, ends up in retrospect seeming a very thin, and surprisingly ramshackle, contrivance.