The fun of seeing Jonah Hill and James Franco share scenes in True Story, onscreen together for the first time since This is the End, evaporates quickly behind a sullen game of quid pro quo. The film is a true story as the title might suggest, but it's undeserving of such sensationally ironic hype. If you're going to name your movie True Story, you'd better make sure the film is so unbelievable that the name actually means something.
The ironic title (combined with a poster that reads: "lies" a million times) gives the film away. For those who don't know the story of Christian Longo (Franco), the question of whether or not he did it, creates the film's mystery. Robbed of that, we're stuck listening to a liar for 100 minutes while the hero, Michael Finkel (Hill), frustratingly believes him.
Despite its predictability, True Story is fascinating on a surface level. It begins with Longo in Mexico where he's discovered, arrested, and brought back to the U.S. to stand trial for the murders of his wife and three young children. The real story of the murders is the stuff of nightmares. The four bodies of the victims were found stuffed in suitcases after being dropped from a bridge in small town Oregon in 2001. Longo took off to Mexico afterwards and when he was arrested, he told the police his name was Michael Finkel.
That's where Hill comes in. The real Finkel is a rising star at the New York Times, but sloppy reporting costs him his job and credibility. He returns home to his wife, Jill (Felicity Jones), in Montana where he learns about Longo via another reporter. Intrigued by this suspected killer using his name and always on the lookout for a great story, Finkel visits Longo in jail.
True Story really begins here. The writer journeys to meet the murderer. That's a great set-up, but what ensues doesn't live up to it. Director Rupert Goold, working off a screenplay he adapted with David Kajganich based on Finkel's own memoir, doesn't establish suspense within the jailhouse scenes. And Franco gives the blandest serial killer performance in recent movie history. His job is to seduce Finkel and he accomplishes it, but in the most obvious way possible. He compliments Finkel, smiles at him, and the writer eats it up like a sap.
Hill's desperate as Finkel, ousted by the Times and on the hunt for redemption, the writer jumps at the chance to interview Longo. He sees himself in the accused man. They both write and... well, that's about it. What Finkel really sees in Longo is acceptance. He's a fan, or so he says, and Finkel allows this man to talk him into helping him because of vanity.
The obvious cinematic comparison here is to Capote, Bennett Miller's near-perfect film about Truman Capote's relationship with accused killer Perry Smith. But where Capote's waters run deep with themes about the dangers of ambition and approval, True Story merely spins a tale about a completely disgusting person and how he duped a supposedly intelligent writer. Finkel's desperation clouds his judgment and he sleepwalks through this film like a dumb high school chick in a horror movie. You want to yell out to him, "HE'S LYING. CAN'T YOU TELL?"
Despite the script's lack of subtlety or subtext, True Story is watchable thanks to its cast. Hill is still making his way as a dramatic actor and he has a few moments of honesty in this film that stand out. Although, he comes up short expressing anger and frustration, something Goold doesn't help with his relentless tight close-ups. Franco coasts through this film with a shoulder shrug of a performance. More than anyone, he's done in by the linear script which allows for little nuance or movement. If you know nothing about Christian Longo or this tale, True Story is for you. Its straightforward narrative builds to a revealing ending, although you'll probably guess what it is by then.