James Franco & Jonah Hill’s True Story
Larry Busacca/ Craig Barritt/ Getty Images
Confession: I almost fell asleep in this movie. Which is, I think, the clearest review I can give it. Starring Jonah Hill and James Franco, True Story is based on the true story (GET IT?) of Michael Finkel, a disgraced journalist who discovers that an accused murderer, Christian Longo, was using his identity while on the lam. The real story already sounds exactly like the plot of a movie, so it should have made for at least a pretty decent film, right? Not so much.
Hill stars as Finkel, freshly fired from New York Times Magazine after he’s busted fabricating portions of a story. Based on Finkel’s own memoir, the movie suggests he may have been left hung out to dry by his editor, and not that he just made some sh*t up to make for a more entertaining story. Franco, meanwhile, portrays Longo, a man accused of murdering his wife and three children. Once Finkel learns that Longo assumed his identity to hide in Mexico, he goes to speak to the man, and the movie attempts to become a psychological thriller in which we’re supposed to wonder who is playing whom, and if Longo really did it or not, and if he did do it, what purpose manipulating Finkel is supposed to serve. Mostly I just wondered how much longer before the movie was over.
True crime is hot right now because of superior stuff like Serial and The Jinx, and of course True Story has to contend with the bar set by Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the many fine adaptations it’s inspired, including Capote. All of the pieces are there for True Story, as director Rupert Goold does an adequate job managing the tension and not overselling the dramatic beats, and composer Marco Beltrami’s score is particularly good. But True Story comes off little better than a Dateline murder mystery—actually, no, it’s way more boring than a Dateline murder mystery. The problem is that Hill and Franco are miscast. Perhaps one or the other would have been fine, but together they bring out the worst in each other. They’re both actors who tend to underplay scenes, but what this movie really needs is a stand-out charismatic performance.
Longo is accused of monstrous crimes, and Franco’s narcoleptic delivery and smarmy smiles don’t do anything to make him likeable in spite of the evidence against him. We’re supposed to doubt his guilt and wonder at his motives, but we never really have anything to invest in him in the first place because Franco appears to be dead for a portion of his performance. I kept imagining True Story if Sam Rockwell played Longo—it’s a completely different and much better movie. The closest thing to a charismatic performance we see is Felicity Jones as Girlfriend (following her Oscar-nominated turn as Wife.) Girlfriend is inhumanly supportive and understanding as Finkel forms a jailhouse relationship with the sleepy sociopath, but she does get in one really great scene, mostly by default as she is the only person emoting above a 4.
True Story is completely missable. It’s not bad so much as miscalculated, and it fails to draw us in. The real story of Finkel and Longo is bananas and doesn’t need embellishment, but Goold, who co-wrote the screenplay as well, tinkers with it and somehow manages to make it less interesting. It doesn’t help that his two stars are engaged in some kind of un-emote-off, sucking the life out of what should be a thrilling psychological push-pull between two men willing to bend the truth for personal gain. Instead, True Story is as dull as televised golf. (Sorry, Lainey, but golf is only on TV so that adults don’t have to feel bad about napping on Sunday afternoons.)
Attached - James Franco at the 2015 Hulu Upfront Presentation with J.J. Abrams today in New York.