(L-R) Jonah Hill as Mike Finkel and James Franco as Christian Longo in a scene from True Story. (Mary Cybulski/Fox Searchlight Pictures)
In 2001, acclaimed journalist Michael Finkel was fired from the New York Times after it came to light that he had fabricated details of a feature story he had penned about the African Slave Trade.
Humiliated, Finkel moved back to his hometown of Bozeman, MT to let the heat die down and rebuild his ruined career, when, suddenly, in December of that very year, an incredible coincidence would dramatically change his life for good.
Thousands of miles away in Mexico, Christian Longo, a former Barista from Oregon was arrested and extradited to America to stand trial for the vicious murder of his wife and three children. Mysteriously, when Longo was found by authorities, it came to pass that he had been going under the assumed alias of one Michael Finkel, writer for the New York Times. When the real Finkel got word of this bizarre twist of fate, he immediately established contact with Longo, drove to Oregon, and set about interviewing the man in the hopes that this strange, cosmic story might mean his redemption as a journalist.
It is this relationship that British theater director Rupert Goold hopes to exploit (and I don’t say that lightly) for dramatic irony in his new film True Story, a just-good-enough revisionist take on a true story that seems too good to be true.
Indeed, Goold and writer David Kajganich attempt to mold Finkel (Jonah Hill) and Longo (James Franco)’s jailhouse visiting-room talks into a kind of Hannibal-Clarice dynamic from The Silence of The Lambs. At first, Longo professes his great admiration for Finkel, offering him the exclusive rights to his story provided the embattled journalist will teach him “how to write.” Initially repulsed, Finkel soon finds himself opening up to the charming Longo, developing a strange kind of kinship with another pariah facing a different, yet similar brand of judgement.
Eventually, Longo begins giving Finkel new details about his case, pointing to a theory that someone is in fact setting him up. Finkel knows full well that he shouldn’t buy this far fetched excuse, but he can’t help feel swayed by the impassioned protestation of his unlikely friend.
Nevertheless, he starts pitching his story around, now in the form of a non fiction book about his connection with a killer. Finkel finally gets a publisher hooked by feeding him exclusive details about the case and the upcoming trial, all predicated upon one basic truth–that Longo will plead guilty. Everything is coming up roses for Finkel until Longo actually takes the stand. There, in front of the jury, Longo pleads not guilty to two out of the four murders, unleashing a wild new argument which invalidates Finkel’s info, making him yet again seem like a liar.
Facing another career crisis, Finkel attempts to extricate himself from the life of the man who took his identity, only to find he’s been ensnared in a spider web of complex lies and double crosses.
The parts of this True Story which Goold handles purely as an off key, slow burn indie drama work quite well, cultivating an unsettling, sterile vibe which really allows us entry into the Kafkaesque hell of Finkel’s existence. Instead of fully committing to this tone, however, writer Kajganich tries to turn the latter half of the film into a heightened, cinematic thriller, most likely in an effort to make the dramatic stakes seem more palpable.
Unfortunately, what he gains in affected melodrama, Kajganich loses in atmospheric believability. By the time we see Finkel’s cypher of a girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones) visiting Longo without an appointment in jail and delivering an overwrought dramatic monologue plucked straight out of an episode of “Law and Order: SVU,” all credibility leaps out the window, leaving us with a wholly bifurcated mess, crudely rendered by mixing the fabric of various superior crime thrillers and forcing them upon a far more muted real life story.
This confusion is not helped by the generally scattered performances given by True Story’s leads. Despite the Oscar nod, Hill still has yet to convince me of his dramatic chops, and his turn as Finkel is no exception. Hill’s work here is wispy, stilted, and unemotive–the work of an actor desperately trying to seem serious as opposed to fully embodying his character.
Similarly, the once energetic Franco has in recent years taken to a kind of “meta” sleepiness–a distance from the audience that verges almost on anti-performance. When his Longo makes a Nicolas-Cage-sized meal of minor lines and emphasizes the wrong syllables, is he just phoning it in or is he actively mocking the material a la Tim and Eric? It’s hard to tell.
Indeed, maybe Goold was aiming for the type of movie I would have liked True Story to be, but when his financier saddled him with these Jude Apatow all-stars as leads he felt it necessary to blow things up a bit to fit their outlandish personas.
Little did he know that Hill and Franco circa 2015 bear precious little relevance to the peppy clowns we once knew. As such, the director was left with a movie every bit as confused as the scant audiences will be upon leaving it.
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Now playing in theaters.
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