Those questions -- and not what happened on one fateful night at the height of a certain comedy team's career, when a young woman showed up dead in their hotel bathtub -- form the central mystery of this film. Plenty could have gone right, both with the acting and the direction, and indeed, the movie has its moments. (There's a lot of lascivious sex, for one thing; Egoyan chose to go without a rating only after the MPAA refused to change its verdict of NC-17.) But Egoyan seems to have fallen far too much in love with the genre to adapt it in any meaningful way -- or even to generate original lines. What he has produced is a bizarre amalgam: two A-plus performances set against a flimsy backdrop of a B-caliber plot and derivative dialogue, swirling around a lead actress who doesn't have the strength to carry a movie.
It's 1972, and Karen O'Connor (Lohman) is a young journalist hired to write a celebrity profile for a major magazine. For the story of his life, the magazine has promised one-time comedy great Vince Collins (Firth) a million dollars, and O'Connor (as she calls herself) intends to make him work for it. In particular, she wants to know what happened on one pivotal night 15 years before, when a young woman was found drowned in the bathtub of Collins' hotel room. Collins shared that room with Lanny Morris (Bacon), his comedy partner; the men were preparing for a 39-hour telethon to raise money to fight polio. (Yes, there is more than a little Jerry Lewis to Bacon's manic stage persona.)
On the flight to New York to meet with her editors, O'Connor lands a seat in first class. By sheer happenstance, Morris is also on the flight. He doesn't know who she is, or that she's writing an exposé of his former partner, and therefore of him, or that she has read a segment of his memoir, which he is in the process of writing. They strike up a conversation. She pretends to be someone else. He makes a Gauguin joke. She gets it. He follows her back to her friend's apartment. They sleep together. In the morning, he is gone, sans note of any kind.
The idea is for the plot to thicken, through O'Connor's sexual involvement with Morris and her resemblance to the dead girl -- both young, blond female writers infatuated with and intent upon getting the story of the Morris-Collins team. But almost every added plot element feels too contrived to gain any depth. The layers of stories pile on, as everyone has his version -- Morris, Morris' memoir, Morris' valet (David Hayman), Collins, the mother of the dead girl -- but none of it builds. Because the script is so flaccid, all of these supposed truths merely lie there, tossed on the ground, with no one to pick them up.
Of course, that job is supposed to go to O'Connor, and Lohman does make the attempt. You can see the machinery at work -- dug-in heels, locked jaw, glowering eyes. But with her Drew Barrymore half-lisp and pink-pumpkin cheeks, Lohman is far more high school sweetheart than steely working girl. The role calls for a sophisticate, a young woman with some experience of the seamy side of the curtain, and, slinky '70s wardrobe aside, Lohman doesn't have it. In fact, because she reads as so naive, there is something pedophilic about the sex scenes. Even worse are the moments in which she goes head-to-head with her subjects, summoning moxie apparently ex nihilo to corner them into revelation. We don't buy it, so why do they?
We don't feel for O'Connor, either. Her motivation is just too weak. It may look good on paper (girlhood fixation on major celebrity, desire to solve buried mystery and further career), but as it plays out, it feels inadequate. Again, Lohman's lack of power -- and passion -- saps the story of its life. It's a shame, because a bold performance would have given Firth and Bacon even more to work with, and the relationships between and among the members of that ménage à trois could have really begun to zing.