Watching “The Whole Truth,” I wondered if I had seen way too many courtroom dramas over the years to have the energy to appreciate this one. Then again, this movie does start off with a narration which had me laughing unintentionally, and its plot of a young man on trial for patricide felt like I was experiencing a severe case of déjà vu. How many episodes of “Law & Order” dealt with this kind of crime? Furthermore, how many of them proved to be more enthralling than this motion picture? Considering the talent involved in front of and behind the screen, “The Whole Truth” is a major disappointment.
Perhaps one of the main problems comes from an opening image which has a snake slithering on the ground as Keanu Reeves’ lawyer character of Richard Ramsay rides his motorcycle up the road. As soon as Richard goes by, the snake slithers right after him. From there, we have a good idea of the kind of people this movie will inhabit, and realizing this makes one realize there will be no real surprises in store for us.
Richard is a defense attorney, and he is defending young Mike Lassiter (Gabriel Basso) who is accused of murdering his father, Boone Lassiter (Jim Belushi). Things are not going well for these two as Mike refuses to speak about anything regarding his father’s death, and Richard tries to make him see they are on their way to a guilty verdict. All this time, Mike’s mother, Loretta (Rene Zellweger) sits in the courtroom looking on impassively. Did Mike really kill his father? Oh, come on, you already know the answer to this.
For those familiar with the novels of John Grisham and Scott Turow or the movies based on their works, the path “The Whole Truth” takes is one which has been traveled endlessly. We know something is up from the start, and it just makes us all the more impatient for the big reveal we know is coming. And while I’m no lawyer, I can see so many plot holes in this case which defy all reasonable logic. Mike himself makes a revelation on the stand which turns everything upside down, but the prosecuting attorney doesn’t even order a medical evaluation to verify it.
As for Reeves’ character, he seems much too close to the Lassiter family to represent them without bias. Then again, this probably doesn’t matter in the real world. It certainly didn’t matter when Johnnie Cochran represented O.J. Simpson in his murder trial, so why should it here? Still, with Richard so close to the family, it’s no surprise he is involved in this fiendish crime to where I just wanted him to admit the truth already.
The most dispiriting thing about “The Whole Truth” is it was directed by Courtney Hunt, the same person who gave us the terrific crime drama “Frozen River” back in 2008. That one starred Melissa Leo and the late Misty Upham as a pair of working-class women who smuggled illegal immigrants across the border into the United States. Hunt directed her actors to incredible performances, and she gave us a movie which felt alive and was never weighed down by clichés or illogical moments.
“The Whole Truth,” however, is the exact opposite as it is full of clichés and proves to be an insult to the intelligence even before the movie reaches its halfway point. The courtroom scenes are lifelessly staged, and the actors lack conviction in their performances. I expected Howard to bring something fresh to this material, and she even had a screenplay by Rafael Jackson to work from. But none of the energy and originality she brought to “Frozen River” can be found here. It’s been eight years since that film, and I can’t help but wonder why she chose this project as her follow up.
When it comes to Reeves as an actor, he either gives you the best or the worst he has to offer. His performance in “The Whole Truth” has him delivering courtroom speeches in an inauthentic manner which is depressing to watch, and his delivery of the voiceover narration is at times laughable. While he fares much better than he did in “Knock, Knock,” watching Reeves here makes me yearn for the “John Wick” sequel to come out sooner rather than later. Just from looking at the trailer for it, he looks far more alive in that sequel than he does here.
Then there’s Zellweger who makes Loretta far too enigmatic a character here. Furthermore, she looks very sick and emaciated here; very unhealthy. This all but takes away from the great performance she could have given but doesn’t. Loretta proves to be nothing more than another helpless wife and mother, and more could have been done to make this character complex and interesting. Instead, Zellweger is wasted in a role which gives her very little to work with. It’s great to see her back onscreen, but she deserves much better than this.
The only actor who gets off easy is Belushi as he succeeds in leaving his “According to Jim” persona in the dust by playing such an unlikable prick. His character of Boone is a jerk to put it mildly, but Belushi manages to make him more than that even with his limited screen time. Boone is like Aaron Paul’s character of Peter from “The 9th Life of Louis Drax” in that Boone initially comes across as a jerk, but we soon realize there is more going on with him than what’s on the surface. Belushi manages to convey this in a way the other actors are unable to, but it’s still not enough to life this movie out of the muck of mediocrity.
Popular culture has been and still is filled with court shows like “The People’s Court” and procedurals like “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” to where we know exactly what to expect from the trials presented to us. It’s tempting to say “The Whole Truth” suffers from being stuck in a time where we have long since been burned out from this kind of entertainment, but it still feels like so much more could have been done with this material. What ends up unfolding before us feels stale, derivative and easily forgettable. My hope is Howard will have more luck on her next film because this one does not represent a step in the right direction for her.
Daniel Craig was actually set to play Reeves’ role, but he ended up dropping out before filming began. Perhaps he realized the screenplay for “The Whole Truth” wasn’t as good as he originally thought. Jack Nicholson once yelled “you can’t handle the truth” in “A Few Good Men,” and there’s no reason why audiences should have to handle “The Whole Truth.” Courtroom dramas are a dime a dozen, and this one doesn’t even try to stand out from the pack.
* ½ out of * * * *