Thursday, April 16, 2015

True Story

When you think about Jonah Hill and James Franco starring in a movie together, there are certain expectations that come to mind: insult humor, dick jokes, maybe a bromance or two. True Story throws all of that out the window and casts the two Apatow alums in dramatic roles without a joke to be heard in the entire film. While each man has previously dipped his toe in dramatic waters independently from one another (Moneyball, The Wolf of Wall Street, 127 Hours, As I Lay Dying), this is the first time they've been cast as leads in a serious project opposite each other, and they both dive in with conviction.

True Story
Co-writer/Director: Rupert Goold
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones

In the early 2000s, New York Times reporter Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) is fired for misrepresenting the truth in one of his articles. Meanwhile, a man named Christian Longo is arrested for the murder of his wife and three children, and when he is apprehended, he tells police that he is Mike Finkel. It's an intriguing mystery, and Finkel - who's essentially been shunned by the writing community - sees this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redeem himself and find out the truth: did Longo really murder his family, or is he protecting someone else? Is there a greater mystery at play here? Why did he use Finkel's name?

To answer those questions in this review would rob the film of much of its drama, so I'll simply say that while the film tells a compelling story, it's definitely more of a character study than a full-on "whodunit" thriller, so adjust your expectations accordingly.

Franco (who was great in 127 Hours and downright legendary in Spring Breakers) slips into Longo's skin with ease, alternating between vulnerable and manipulative as an almost palpable menace bubbles just beneath the surface. He gives the best performance of the movie, playing a guy whose motivations are never fully known but always seem just out of reach, a sort of infuriating quality that pulls both the audience and Finkel in closer as we yearn for the truth. Hill has some strong moments, but his character is kind of a jerk who treats his wife (Felicity Jones, completely wasted here) like crap and seems willfully uninterested in anything but himself, and the actor seems reluctant to fully commit to being unlikable.

And while the movie undoubtedly tells a fascinating story (one that's much better if you don't know the details going in), there are some pretty jarring decisions that took me out of the spell first-time director Rupert Goold was trying to cast. When we first see Finkel at work at the New York Times, he's writing an article, playing a game of poker with some co-workers, and having a conversation with a girl at the desk across from his...all at the same time. The camera swoops through the action as Finkel juggles all of this, desperately attempting to make him look like the coolest writer known to man. Don't you think that if you were writing an important piece for the New York Times, you'd, oh, I don't know, actually put real thought into it instead of doing a half-assed multitasking job? Later, as Finkel types away at the book he's writing about Longo, the film intercuts his fingers on a keyboard with his wife's fingers playing the piano looks artsy? She's such an afterthought in this movie, and this is one of those moments that looks flashy because it has no thematic relevance to what's happening. It's an empty stylistic choice. There are a few more instances of distracting stuff like that, and the movie suffers as a result.

If a Citizenfour-style documentary was made about this, with real footage of the conversations that Longo and Finkel had during their prison visits, that's something I'd be interested in seeing. But True Story in its current form feels unsatisfying, and despite a solid performance from Franco, it's not something I'd ever even think about watching again.

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