Sundance 2015: James Franco and Jonah Hill Weave an Unbelievable True Story

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True Story

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Late in Rupert Goold’s True Story, a character describes James Franco’s character, the convicted murderer Christian Longo, as being “very calm, very remote.” The same could be said of Goold’s debut feature film, which turns a cold, almost clinical eye on a deeply unsettling story of murder and betrayal. Franco and Jonah Hill star in the fact-based tale (did that title tip you off? it should have) as a pair of seemingly different men brought together by something a little bit like fate or luck, if you believe that fate has a sense of humor and luck is kind of a bitch. When the film opens, the pair is in disparate places, with Longo hiding out in Mexico, having fled Oregon after apparently murdering his wife and their three children in horrifying and heinous fashion, while Hill’s Michael Finkel is toiling away on a story about child slaves in Africa, the very same story that will eventually end his career (well, at least for a little bit).

The twist of the tale, the kind of thing you couldn’t make up because no one would believe you, is that while laying low in Mexico, Longo used an alias: “Michael Finkel.” And not just any old Michael Finkel, specifically “Michael Finkel from The New York Times.” By the time Longo is caught and shipped back to America to stand trial for his crimes, Finkel has been through his own upheaval, having been booted from his gig at Gray Lady, only to retreat back to his home in Montana to lick his wounds and plan his next career move. That’s when he gets the call, the one asking him to share his thoughts on the lunatic murderer who tried to pass himself off as Finkel for a few days in far Mexico.

Finkel smells a story.

As a star reporter for The New York Times, Hill’s Finkel is meant to read as cocky, casually playing a game of poker and bitching about past hotel accommodations while barely meeting a big deadline, but Hill’s work in the early acts of the film is unappealing and unbelievable. He never exhibits the kind of depth and confidence that Finkel is obviously meant to possess, the kind that was so clearly written into the script, and his supposed fall from grace doesn’t feels big enough or bad enough, simply because it never feels as if Finkel has lost anything. His accomplishments are literally shared as framed photographs, a neat wall displaying his past magazine covers, but Hill doesn’t infuse his performance with enough desperation or shame to make us believe that his Finkel has been destroyed by his firing and subsequent outing as a fraud.

Hill’s performance does, however, pick up considerably once he’s placed in a room with Franco, and the pair’s numerous encounters and slow-growing affection for each other are fierce and finely made. Finkel’s inherent curiosity shines through Hill’s eyes, and his determination to scoop a massive story (and restore his good name and make a ton of money in the process, Finkel is nothing if not driven to act as if he’s dedicated to the truth) positively light Hill up. That’s perhaps why Finkel so easily fell under Longo’s sway during their interactions, and Franco’s purposely dead-eyed performance serves as a terrifying counter-point to Hill’s eager beaver routine. The movie is built around Franco and Hill and their performances, and while True Story would benefit immensely from stronger all-around work, the pair both reaches their high points in appropriate fashion.

Although Goold’s film calmly and remotely approaches much of its subject matter, the film occasionally injects awkward and oddly dreamy flashbacks of the rest of the Longo family into the narrative, slowing down and distracting from its otherwise tight pacing. Similarly, Goold also chooses to show a variety of staged photographs meant to approximate actual evidence from the Longo case, a wrong-headed choice that often feels nothing short of crass. True Story is a shocking enough story on its own, it certainly doesn’t need (even fake) pictures of dead children to drive home the depth of depravity that Longo exhibited during his crimes.

Fascinating and unsettling, True Story functions on two levels: as a morality play about a pair of outcasts who recognize something in each other, and a somewhat salacious true crime feature. Both elements of Goold’s story work well, and True Story hums right along to a gut-twisting conclusion that makes both Longo and Finkel out to be monsters of various sizes, with Hill and Fracno seemingly reveling in the icky and captivating ambiguity at every turn.

The Upside: Hill’s performance gets progressively better and more powerful, Franco’s ability to go staggeringly dead-eyed works in this capacity, retains a very suitable and chilling sense of calm and unattachment throughout, beautifully paced.

The Downside: Hill’s performance starts off poorly, Felicity Jones is given little to do, Hill and Jones exhibit zero chemistry, Hill’s Finkel is not believable as some superstar writer, the majority of the flashbacks feel forced, photographic “evidence” is crass.

On the Side: The film marks the third collaboration between Franco and Hill, though it is the first dramatic feature the duo have undertaken together.

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