“All people lie,” says Ramsey (Keanu Reeves), the cunning, cynical lawyer who agrees to defend a teenage client, Mike (Gabriel Basso), against charges that he murdered his father, Boone (Jim Belushi). In Nicholas Kazan’s intricate screenplay for The Whole Truth, however, the truth lies in the flashbacks, all of them strategically placed to either confirm, deny, or complicate the veracity of what various characters testify on the stand or in confidence.
In this context, the absence of a flashback to accompany a character’s testimony is enough to immediately inspire skepticism in audiences. This structural gimmick marginally elevates Courtney Hunt’s film above the level of a feature-length Law & Order episode, many of which depend on purely verbal revelations to advance its narrative. So, to a lesser extent, does Ramsey’s voiceover narration, which Reeves delivers in the style of a hardboiled gumshoe in a detective noir—a pose of mastery over human nature that’s gradually subverted as the plot twists pile up and he realizes the outcome of the trial he’s participating in may not entirely be in his hands.
Still, The Whole Truth is basically a straightforward courtroom drama. Like the Kazan-scripted Reversal of Fortune before it, the film gains a lot of dramatic mileage out of the relatively unconventional premise of a lawyer having to try to discover the truth of a situation despite dealing with an unreliable client—in this case, one that won’t even speak to his lawyer, as Mike mysteriously refuses to do for much of the film. The same skeptical view of the upper class that was prevalent in that earlier script also finds its way into The Whole Truth, with Boone painted as a loutish, domineering womanizer who also abuses and cheats on his long-suffering wife, Loretta (Renée Zellweger). He apparently has such a hold on those around him that, even after his death, almost everyone is afraid to tell the truth—another layer of near-conspiratorial deception that Ramsey has to wade through.
Another character offers a potential entry point into this unsavory world of sex and violence: Janelle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the daughter of a well-respected former lawyer who Ramsey brings on to be his “bullshit detector,” and who’s trying to bounce back from a stint at a mental institution. The deeper she wades into this case, however, the more she eventually becomes the film’s most sympathetic and morally upright character. Or, at least, her moral uprightness might matter more if the characters had exuded any depth beyond the merely archetypal—mere chess pieces for Kazan to arrange his cleverly stacked deck of cards. The filmmakers are so disengaged from the psyches of its characters that The Whole Truth ultimately plays as little more than the cinematic equivalent of a trashy airport novel that will grip you in the moment before it dissolves from memory immediately afterward.