Disgraced reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) admits, “I got so caught up in telling a great story that I forgot my obligation to the truth.”
The opposite happens for the filmmakers behind “True Story.” This fact-based movie desperately needs some creative embellishment.
To relate the tale of Finkel and accused murderer Christian Longo (James Franco), the filmmakers try so hard to avoid the theatrical tropes of Hollywood murder mysteries that they lose out on the story’s impact. The drama has a wicked premise and some memorable one-on-one scenes, but it leads nowhere.
Journalist Finkel got fired from The New York Times Magazine in 2001 for creating a composite character in a piece about modern-day slaves in Africa. Then he stumbled across a sensational crime with personal ties.
Oregon family man Longo had skipped to Mexico after his wife and three children were found murdered. There, he’d been telling everyone he was Times reporter Michael Finkel. Turns out Longo was an aspiring writer himself.
While Longo awaits trial, the two agree to meet.
“At the very same time you were using my name, they stripped me of it,” Finkel tells him.
They make a quid pro quo arrangement: Finkel will help the defendant with his writing, and Longo will give the journalist an exclusive account of what really happened — and a likely book deal. A chance at redemption for both men?
First-time director Rupert Goold seems to be trying to capture the same unsettling bond shared by Agent Starling and Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs.” But it’s a different dynamic at work here. The cloying Finkel, chasing his own professional get-out-of-jail-free card, faces off against an enigmatic, soft-spoken killer. Their conversations are more cordial and evasive than intimidating or hostile.
Hill and Franco, both past Oscar nominees, played exaggerated versions of themselves in the comedy “This Is the End.” They’re far more cautious in “True Story.” Almost tentative. Both actors (especially Franco) have flirted with overexposure, which can drag down movie stars still clinging to the ideal of being thespians.
As Hill showed in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” he can effectively lose himself in a role. Not sure that still applies to Franco, who hasn’t achieved that goal since portraying the nutzo drug kingpin Alien in 2012’s “Spring Breakers.”
These days, it’s hard for audiences to see James Franco and not think, “Hey, it’s James Franco playing somebody else.”
Interestingly, the two best scenes in the film remove Hill altogether. Felicity Jones (an Oscar nominee for “The Theory of Everything”) plays Finkel’s wife, Jill, a historian who first speaks with Longo when he calls the couple’s Montana cabin. The conversation is a masterful blend of compliments and insinuation, as the camera follows her around the room, surrounded by graphic items her husband is using to research the crime. It’s eerie and subtle.
Less subtle is when Jill visits the brightly fluorescent county jail (no Lecter-esque dungeon here) for a face-to-face with the accused. It appears to be another “curious innocent who is drawn to bad boys” setup, until Jill recounts the tale of 16th century composer Carlo Gesualdo, who reputedly murdered his wife and child with no remorse. It’s the most “alive” moment in this otherwise restrained production.
Hill’s character also doesn’t factor into how the trial — and ultimately the movie — plays out. A tacked-on bit of surrealism at the end seems like a desperate ploy to connect the narrative dots. For a film that purports to explore the nature of truth, the finale sure rings false.
MORE TO THE ‘STORY’
Even after hours of talking to Christian Longo (the phone calls persist to this day, from Oregon’s death row), writer Michael Finkel says he could never reconcile the “regular, calm guy with the witty repartee” with the unspeakably gruesome crimes he committed seemingly with neither motivation nor malice:
“The single most terrifying thing about Christian Longo that always struck me is that there was absolutely nothing terrifying about him. It’s not like Charles Manson with a swastika engraved on his forehead. He is the guy next door.”
Adds director Rupert Goold: “Whether you call it sociopathy, psychopathy, having a screw loose, or entertain the idea of evil, the film is partly about the fact that there are people in the world who are inexplicable.… Longo in the film works, in a way, like the devil. He is a mirror to Finkel, and in that mirror, he finds something really dark.”
| San Francisco Chronicle