"Plain Truth" is a 2004 film originally made for and aired on the Lifetime television network. Understand, I have never watched more than a few minutes of anything on Lifetime. But the Wife-O-Meter is quite fond of several of their shows: Women doctors, mainly; women lawyers; women investigators. Yes, it's a channel specifically targeting a female audience, but, then, I watch very little commercial TV of any kind. Still, I try to remain open-minded about all types of film, whether or not they're intended for me or my age or my gender. In any case, if my remarks about "Plain Truth" sound a bit negative, you know where I'm coming from.
Put it another way: "Plain Truth" is a typical made-for-television product and, thus, doesn't quite match the highest standards of motion-picture art (or, more important, salability) that a movie would if it were released directly to theaters. That's why some movies are shown theatrically and some go directly to TV or video. If the movie companies thought they could make more money by placing them directly into a theater, they would. But the costs involved with theaters, film prints, distribution, and publicity prevent all but the most marketable items from coming to your local movie house. This is a shame, of course, because any number of fine films never see commercial release in a theater, but that's neither here nor there. "Plain Truth" would be a rather unremarkable film whether it were released theatrically or as it was on TV.
The teleplay by Matthew Tabak ("Auggie Rose") was based on a best-selling novel by Jodi Picoult, and the movie was directed by Paul Shapiro. Shapiro's work has been almost exclusively in TV ("24," "Las Vegas," "Tru Calling," "Roswell," "The Client," "The X Files"), so you can expect a seasoned veteran of the medium at work. Unfortunately, you should not expect many instances of genuine inspiration. Like most everything else about this film, the script and direction are mundane at best.
Mariska Hargitay stars as a beautiful, single, successful, big-town defense attorney, Ellie Harrison, who is beginning to feel guilty taking in the big bucks for defending rich clients she knows are guilty. To assuage her conscience, she takes on the small case of an eighteen-year-old Amish girl who is accused of murdering her newborn baby.
The girl, Katie Fitch (Alison Pill), swears that not only didn't she kill the child, it isn't even hers. She believes she's never been pregnant and never had a baby, despite the fact that the baby's blood and her match and that doctors insist she's just delivered a child. But Ellie takes on the case against all odds, and against all logic, to prove her own worth as a decent, caring human being after all.
The movie has a soap-opera tone to it throughout. It moves slowly along, introducing any number of characters who are hardly developed but who have dire personal problems. Regardless, none of the problems of any of the characters come across as very compelling, no matter the lurid subject matter. The fact is, the whole movie struck me as being like a single episode in a weekly television series. There is little in the movie alone that stands out as singular or individual.
We get all the requisite material for a TV melodrama: the guilt, the anger, the death, the self-righteousness, the doctors, the lawyers, the policemen and policewomen, the operating-room scene, the climactic courtroom scene, and the sudsy drama in between.
Why do these TV movies have to be so sappy and overwrought? Ellie takes on the case at the last minute, in lieu of a much-needed vacation, and shows up in the courtroom to defend her client late and practically unannounced for a heightened dramatic effect. What's more, the judge appoints Ellie as Katie's 24/7 guardian and supervisor during her bail period. What are the odds? But it is a convenient excuse to get Ellie down on the "plain" Amish farm without electricity to recharge her cell phone or computer batteries and without any telephone communication. The big-city lawyer down on the farm? Didn't we already see the big-city cop down on the Amish farm with Harrison Ford in "Witness," and to much better effect?
To make matters worse, for Ellie and the audience, Katie is not only a probable liar, she's a probable looney as well. Ellie discovers the girl going out at night into the fields to talk to her dead sister. The characters have no end of such idiosyncrasies, which are supposed to make them memorable or endearing but really just make them too eccentric to believe.
Among the other stereotypes: Katie's father (Jan Niklas), an Amish fundamentalist so severe he would rather let his daughter be hanged or die in prison than hire a lawyer to defend her. A prosecuting attorney (Robert Bockstael) so surly, smug, and sarcastic that he's almost a cartoon villain. And a handsome psychiatrist (Jonathan Lapaglia) Ellie calls in to work with Katie, a psychiatrist who just happens to be Ellie's old boyfriend of several years before who later got married but is recently divorced. Yet this would-be romance is never seriously developed; it's yet another melodramatic twist in an endless number of extraneous complications, characters, and relationships that begin and end nowhere.
Everything in "Plain Truth" is easily anticipated, clichéd, or stereotyped. Everything works according to formula, from the music by Yves Laferriere, which is so subtle and sugary as to be forgettable, to the predictable courtroom finale. I can't say I hated the film, but I will assume the book had more going for it.
Remember, the movie was made for television, so the picture is presented as it was shot in a 1.33:1 screen ratio. But that doesn't mean it's bad looking. The colors are deep and object delineation is quite good, thanks to a high bit rate transfer. There is a small degree of grain, however, that tends to give the picture a somewhat gritty appearance, and there is also a small degree of waver in closely spaced vertical and horizontal lines. Still, the picture quality looks good and has life.
There's little to be said of the movie's 2.0 Dolby Digital sound. The stereo effects are minimal and the surround effects are nil. Most of the audio is dialogue, coming primarily from the center channel, and anything that might happen in the rear channels is up to the listener's surround processor, like my own Dolby Pro Logic. I noted a low rumble in one scene in a restaurant, but, otherwise, the audio is quiet and easy on the ears. While tonal balance in the midrange is natural and realistic, response in the frequency extremes, dynamic range, deep bass, and transient impact are non-issues.
Understandably, there's not much here; I suspect that with big theatrical releases the studios probably spend as much money on the extras as this particular film cost to make. Here, the main item is a fifteen-minute featurette, "A Look at 'Plain Truth' with the Cast and Crew," which is a series of interviews with the stars and filmmakers, who explain why the movie is so powerful and meaningful and why everyone needs to watch it. There is also a brief, minute-and-a-half deleted scene, "Coroner's Report," that adds little to what we already know in the story. The bonuses conclude with twenty-four scene selections (I always think of the chapter selections as something extra); a collection of more "Lifetime" DVD movie trailers; English and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.
By made-for-television standards, "Plain Truth" is probably pretty good. By the best movie standards, though, it's a pretty sudsy affair. I found little originality in the mundane story line and characters. Yet I found little to object to, either. It's all so noble and well-meaning, it's the kind of stuff that's hard to knock. If you're a regular TV watcher, which I am not, you'll probably enjoy it. Otherwise, you may be in for a long ninety minutes.