For some reason, Fox Searchlight screened ‘True Story’ on Thursday night (just before the opening release date). I usually wait a couple of days for the movie to marinate in my mind before writing anything about it, but I don’t have the luxury of time for this one.
‘True Story’ is a non-fiction account of a publicly disgraced New York Times journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) who hopes for career redemption while writing a book about Christian Longo (James Franco), a man who has been accused of killing his entire family.
I didn’t find this to be anything more than a serious acting exercise for two comedic actors – both of whom are very good. The standout is James Franco, whose character is deliberately impenetrable – Franco plays him tauntingly in a nuanced performance. Hill delivers good work but the character as constructed is problematic – Finkel can’t break out of Longo’s spell and the audience discovers the truth long before he does; it’s hard to root for the redemption of a character so easily swindled. Had Finkel been presented as untrustworthy and if his motivations were ambiguous, we might have had something to get involved in.
Felicity Jones, a fine actress, is completely underused here as Finkel’s supportive wife. The screenplay doesn’t even hint at a relationship between those two, and she isn’t given anything to do apart from a scene that comes completely out of left field. The script also fails to give this story a sense of place; I had to stare into the license plate of a vehicle to realize where the setting was. You would think that Finkel would engage Longo’s lawyer, but the screenplay only inserts the lawyer in the courtroom scenes.
First-time feature filmmaker Rupert Goold doesn’t have a good handle on the material. Goold wants this to be a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, and a commentary about journalistic reporting and truth. Simultaneously overcooked and underdeveloped, the movie spends its near 100 minute runtime trying to figure out what it’s about; it ends up being unfocused, boring, and unconvincing. Prior to the end credits, we are informed by a block of text that Finkel and Longo still meet on a monthly basis. Given the film’s version of events and the terminality of their last on-screen encounter, this is beyond absurd. For a picture so concerned about truth, ‘True Story’ rings entirely false. QED.