In True Story, it’s never really a question if James Franco’s Christian Longo is a criminal. That’s revealed early on. Or whether he is in some way responsible for the death of his wife and three children. He as much as admits to it. We’re dealing then with less a “whodunit,” or even a “whydunit,” but more of a “whatdunit,” which makes for a potentially thrilling, but ultimately muddled affair.
Based on, yes, a true story, Jonah Hill is real life journalist Michael Finkel, a New York Times Magazine superstar, nailing eleven cover stories over the past three years. The fact that Hill carries none of the gravitas of such a field writer, (he still looks like his high school character Seth from Superbad) nor the acting chops to deliver more than slack-jawed looks of “awe” and “surprise,” all work against the film’s believability. Finkel is treated and acts like a hotshot whose shit doesn’t stink, until some of the details of his latest cover story come under scrutiny, and it’s revealed he made a composite of some real life people in order to inject his latest assignment with the highest of stakes. He’s fired from the magazine by two editors (one played by Gretchen Mol who is currently one of our strongest actresses in need of more juicy parts and screen-time) and instantly becomes a pariah in the world of journalism. He can’t get a job, and is holed up in his (to die for) Bozeman, Montana Architectural Digest cabin with his wife (Felicity Jones) who seems to be playing a character from another movie with no onscreen chemistry with her “husband” at all. Because it’s Jones, the filmmaker decides we need a half dozen scenes san dialogue of her looking intently out windows in comfy LL Bean sweaters while sipping cocoa, or contemplating her husband’s motives looking at his notes or sinking enigmatically into a bathtub.
Everything changes when a local reporter (Ethan Suplee, another comic actor miscast as a journalist) calls Finkel to let him know the fugitive father of a murdered family was captured in Mexico, and gave his identity as New York Times reporter Mike Finkel. As any of us would be, Finkel is shocked, confused and curious. He sets up a meeting with the incarcerated Christian Longo, and the cat-and-mouse games begin. Longo now represents Finkel’s golden ticket back from the Gulag, and Finkel is Longo’s chance at a legacy.
The first third of the film intercuts between Longo and Finkel, constantly hitting as hard as possible the duality of these two characters. And while Finkel’s story is the front and center tale of a personal journey for redemption, Longo’s is more murky. But the two actors are not evenly matched. Franco on screen is extremely watchable, the more conflicted Finkel, as played by Hill, is less commanding, and performed with surface skill.
James Franco does, as always, an admirable job, here more than up to the challenge of portraying the enigmatic Longo, as creepy, manipulative, seductive and somewhat indefinable. (Understandably so, since Longo is a narcissistic, borderline personality; the type of people that are almost impossible to pin down, for their motivations, real or contrived, are difficult to categorize, except by psychological experts).
Longo’s deal with the desperate and out of work journalist? Exclusive rights to his story and unfettered access, as long as Finkel does not print anything until after the trial, and teaches him to write. Longo’s reason for adopting Finkel’s identity is because he claims to have been a fan of Finkel his whole career, and believes they are two sides of the same coin. Did Longo commit the murders? He won’t confess to Finkel, keeping his “hot scoop” cool, and a deal with Harper Collins, perhaps just out of reach.
Enter the homoerotic baggage of Strangers on a Train, and Capote, as the two men feed off of, and use each other. In fact, the resemblance between Hill and Franco’s characters with Truman Capote and killer Perry Smith ends up being more than a passing coincidence, as the familiar story devolves into this well-traveled narrative.
The magnificent thing about Capote and of course, its source material In Cold Blood, was the question of spiritual guilt. In that real-life murder, killers Perry Smith and Dick Hickock were vampiric in their need to suck people dry, literally and figuratively. The real question, though, was if Smith was emotionally imprisoned by Hickock, “forced” to do his bidding, or acted on his own free will. As Truman Capote became more and more involved in the case, his feelings for Smith and for his redemption drove him to distraction. And this was not lost on Smith, who manipulated the infatuated writer for his own purposes.
In True Story, Longo is working from the same playbook, and engages Finkel until his pretrial hearing where his plea is a confused “misdirect” for everyone but Longo himself. From this point on, it’s Longo’s game, and Finkel becomes a non-person, watching from the sidelines as the subject of his book becomes the mad maestro.
Sound familiar? Beyond the literary antecedents, there are more than a handful of similarities to America’s favorite real-life psychotic, Robert Durst. Everyone following that media circus believes he was responsible for at least one of the many deaths surrounding him, the greater question plaguing the sensation loving public, was just who was playing who. Right up to that documentary series’ spellbinding finale, we were no longer wondering did he or didn’t he – but more importantly, will he remain distanced and noncommittal or will his armor crack, revealing a true mastermind, with every beat of his heart a premeditated, calculated act.
And so the time is right for just such a thriller like True Story to capture the audience’s imagination and exploit current events. But the film and filmmakers are not up to the task. The director’s work is sound, the cinematography is at times beautiful, (the opening images of a teddy bear dropped in slo-mo into a suitcase already containing a little dead girl are extremely arresting) other times; too self-conscious. But the greatest weakness is the script. We just can’t believe these characters, from the trite “on the mark” dialogue to some contrived, downright crazy motivations. Felicity Jones’s arrival and confrontation with killer Longo, she — sitting defenseless with an “unshackled” self-confessed murderer in an interrogation room plays as downright laughable. Why this marginal character has a big, cathartic scene, while our protagonist is MIA, is completely baffling and arguably unnecessary.
Produced by Brad Pitt’s shingle “Plan B,” the actor-producer obviously has nothing but the purest of intentions for bringing this arresting story to the screen while also helping out his Moneyball costar Hill with a dramatic leading role, but neither Hill nor the script are up to the challenge. ‘Tis a pity, as the material, handled instead by some competent professionals in the acting and writing departments, could have meant the difference between a forgettable foray and an indelible and vital examination of seduction and the power to effectively lie to a lying liar.
True Story opens today in limited release through Fox Searchlight