Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Trouble With the Truth

THE TROUBLE WITH THE TRUTH        B               
USA  (96 mi)  2011  d:  Jim Hemphill               Official site

THE TROUBLE WITH THE TRUTH, as the title aptly suggests, leads us to believe that honesty is not always the best policy, for reasons the film is likely to make clear, though that’s not really how it plays out.  Instead it becomes something we haven’t seen in awhile, becoming a take-off of Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981), a marathon talkathon between two charming and sophisticated characters over dinner, where this turns into My Dinner with Lea, starring the irrepressibly likeable Lea Thompson as Emily, the ex-wife of Robert, John Shea, a face we immediately recognize from television, but never in a lead role.  Thompson’s performance is so warm and engaging we wonder where she’s been, seemingly absent from motion pictures for awhile, but she’s been working in smaller projects, where it’s a joy to see her in a movie worthy of her talent.  The film opens when Robert’s daughter Jenny (Danielle Harris) meets him for breakfast to announce she’s engaged, hoping he’d be thrilled, but instead gets an earful on why marriage is not the way to go, basically lecturing her about learning from his own mistakes, pointing out his own divorce with her mother after a 14-year marriage as a perfect example for why marriage destroys people’s lives.  Blunt and to the point, this was not exactly the response Jenny was looking for in what she hopes is the happiest day of  her life, but it typifies Robert’s views on life, as he’s not thrilled by her fiancé, thinking he’s not the brightest bulb, and knows his daughter could do better if she wouldn’t settle so soon for mediocrity.  It’s obvious Jenny doesn’t share her father’s views, and after mentioning her mom’s in town for a writer’s seminar, she leaves in a huff, apparently used to cool receptions from her father.       

The divorcees decide to meet for drinks at a bar just outside her hotel, where there’s a restaurant nearby.  As it turns out, Robert plays piano at the hotel lounge, mostly for tips, eking out a living by occasionally writing compositions, but he’s off the night she arrives in town, so they have the whole night to themselves, where he drinks choice scotch and she’s a white wine connoisseur.  Their breezy conversation is filled with light hearted barbs with an underhanded satiric edge, as both obviously endured a great deal of pain when they separated, where Robert openly holds nothing but contempt for her new husband, a highly successful businessman who’s filthy rich, especially since she walked out of the marriage to be with him.  Nonetheless, both seem genuinely glad to see one another, where it’s apparent from the natural feel of the well-written dialogue that both have a familiarity with each other’s habits and views, where they’re soon talking as if they never split up in the first place, which leads them to dinner in an intimate upscale restaurant.  The ease of their conversation never lets up, as there are no embarrassing moments or quiet pauses, but a keen interest in each other’s lives, as after another round of drinks, they begin probing many of the personal details that helps explain who they are.  Emily is a successful writer living in comfort, while Robert is a struggling pianist who often feels inclined to sleep with the barmaids.  Each, in their own way, feels comfortable with their choices, as they felt they were suffocating one another during the marriage.  

As the length of the conversation expands, and they retreat to a lounge area for desert and yet another round of drinks, it’s apparent the entire film is built upon holding the audience’s rapt attention by the romantic implications of the conversation taking place in real time, where they grow more honest and confessional, revealing closely held secrets that might change how they feel about one another.  Robert, especially, is seen in the beginning as overly opinionated, the kind of guy that thinks everyone else is a phony while he’s holding down the fort on being authentic.  But Emily is stunned to discover a certain male bluster covering up his real insecurities about an artistic career that never happened, where he always thought he’d make it in the business, but by now, he still has little to show for it.  Maintaining a healthy distance from his daughter after the divorce only leaves him angry at his personal ineptitude and failure.  Also, it turns out, much to Robert’s delight, Emily’s marriage has a few cracks of its own, where a comfort zone is blocking out real passion, becoming a safe choice, but one that leaves her wondering if she made the right decision to leave Robert in the first place, who has always been her closest and most trusted friend irrespective of their differences.  In the waning midnight hour, both are second guessing what might have happened if only they had done this, or that, and wonder if it’s too late to mend broken fences?  Emily, especially, seems amenable to exploring the idea of re-opening their marriage, while Robert, Mr. Free Spirit himself, is the one suggesting not so fast, as there are inevitable consequences.  It’s an interesting chess match of inflamed and intoxicated love and desire, living in the uncertainty of the present while re-examining intuitively what’s behind them, wondering if they should explore what lies ahead.  It’s an interesting tug of war with ignited passions on either side, a passion play brilliantly written by writer/director Jim Hemphill, a former movie critic for the Chicago Reader, Film Quarterly, and American Cinematographer magazine.  Hemphill builds the characters into such wholly developed human beings that it feels as if they should literally step out of the movie screen into real life, like Buster Keaton in SHERLOCK JR. (1924) or Jeff Daniels in Woody Allen’s THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985).  In fact, the film is so performance driven, it’s questionable whether cinema doesn’t stifle their spontaneity, or whether this is even the most appropriate means of expression.  Why not Broadway?—as this play is so rich with live theatrical potential.   

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