There are a ton of questions anyone who signs up for courtroom drama The Whole Truth will be left to consider. Unfortunately, none of them have anything to do with the uninvolving, shallow movie itself, unless that question is "How did so many talented people end up in this???" Once set to be led by Daniel Craig before he smartened up, the film now boasts a phoned in performance by Keanu Reeves that will have you booting up the John Wick 2 trailer as a reminder that he still is capable of doing some amazing stuff when fully engaged. Along with Renee Zellwegger, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jim Belushi, Gabriel Basso, and Frozen River director Courtney Hunt, there's no excuse for this to have less intrigue than a TV legal series.
For a case that is pretty straight-forward with a twist telegraphed in the first 10 minutes, The Whole Truth serves up a lot of curveballs that don't amount to much due to thin characterizations. Set in steamy Louisiana, Reeves plays laid-back defense attorney Richard Ramsay. The film doesn't waste a lick of time with backstory, filling in the gaps through Richard's hard-boiled narration. He's taken on the case of 17-year-old Mike Lassiter (Basso) who has been charged as an adult for the murder of his philandering douchebag of a father, Boone (Belushi). It's a case made nearly impossible by Mike's refusal to utter a word, which he hasn't in months, not even in his own defense. The opening minutes find Richard floundering as one prosecution witness after another skates by with barely a challenge. Kind of hard to mount a defense with no defense to mount, and the situation is made worse since Mike already confessed to the crime.
But this is odd right off the bat, and is where the screenplay by Nicholas Kazan and Rafael Jackson, gives up the goat. See, Richard and Boone were buddies, so why would he be taking on the case of the guy who killed his friend? And what's his wife, the quietly demanding Loretta (Zellwegger) have to do with all this? She always seems to be around in the frame somewhere, never far away, watching Richard's moves like a hawk. What's her stake in all of this besides seeing her son go free?
The basic principle of the film, reiterated as Richard's core legal philosophy, is that everybody is a liar. He isn't wrong based on the parade of unreliable witnesses that march up to take the stand, their lies revealed in instantaneous flashback. But these scenes are also cut with unflattering revelations about Boone himself; revelations which Richard is all too eager to make known. Basically, everybody is terrible here, yet none are very interesting in their devious behavior. The only highlight comes with the arrival of Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Richard's junior attorney Janelle, the daughter of his mentor and a woman with a shady past of her own. As she tries to rebound from a stint in rehab, Janelle basically serves as a stand-in for the audience, making her by default the only character we feel any kind of closeness to. At least she isn't buried beneath a mountain of deceptions, making her the most honest person in the room. But like so many of the other players in this game she is left without much depth or motivation. Often it feels like the short, sub-90-minute drama trimmed these characters down into archetypes and left anything potentially complex out.
Hunt, who has spent the years between this and Frozen River directing various episodes of Law & Order: SVU, isn't given much to work with from a visual or narrative standpoint. She may have been able to make due with weak, one-dimensional characters on a 60-minute episode of that long-running TV series but it doesn't work as a feature. The bland palette of a Louisiana courtroom doesn't suit her, either, just as Reeves seems turned off by the entire experience. Maybe he was expecting Al Pacino to suddenly rise up from the floor, Hellish flames engulfing him like in Reeves' best courtroom flick yet, The Devil's Advocate. That The Whole Truth has you wishing Satan would emerge and burn everything down is a sign that maybe this is a film unworthy of a strong defense.
Rating: 1 out of 5