"True Story" is a case of a well-crafted film, made by a first-time feature director with an impressive theatrical pedigree, that nonetheless struggles to locate the reasons for telling its story.
That story comes from the 2005 memoir by Michael Finkel, played in "True Story" by Jonah Hill. In 2002, writing for The New York Times Sunday magazine, journalist Finkel disgraced himself by fabricating an interview subject — a composite cooked up with details and quotes from several different people — in a feature on exploited Ivory Coast cocoa plantation workers. The Times gave him the boot, and retreating to Montana, Finkel wondered what to do next.
Then he got a call from a reporter asking for comment on something peculiar. An accused murderer, Christian Longo, had been hiding out in Mexico and traveling under an assumed name: that of Michael Finkel. Why? Why did Longo revere Finkel and purloin his name and his profession? The answer to that question turned out to be fairly simple, but the relationship that developed between Finkel and the imprisoned Longo did not.
In their many talks together, Longo used Finkel as a kind of sounding board, trying out various defense theories. (He was accused of killing his wife and their three children in Oregon.) Finkel, meantime, used Longo as a means to his own mea culpa, a way of owning up to his journalistic misdeeds and to clear his name, while investigating a juicy story.
James Franco, shifty of eye and subtle of sleaze, plays Longo in the film co-written and directed by Rupert Goold, who shares script credit with David Kajganich. The material leans heavily on two-person scenes between the two men in the prison interview setting. The appeal of this project was clear — the opportunity for stealthy power-brokering is unlimited for a couple of resourceful performers.
And yet, even with shrewd and honest work by Franco and Hill and a solid supporting turn from under-used Felicity Jones as Finkel's romantic partner, the film comes to life only sporadically. Largely, I think, it's because it feels inflated and self-aggrandizing in the Michael Finkel department. He isn't Truman Capote writing "In Cold Blood," which — behind the scenes — made for an ethically dubious and very rich discovery process in the film "Capote." Even with those dead bodies in the back story, "True Story" keeps its stakes far lower. Finkel's redemption just isn't as intriguing as Longo's secrets. Their sort-of-friendship remains less a mystery than a blank. Maybe Goold and co-writer Kajganich should've gone further with their dramatic license — exactly, and paradoxically, what got Finkel into trouble in the first place.
"True Story" - 2 stars (out of four)
MPAA rating: R (for language and for some disturbing material)
Running time: 1:44
Phillips is a Tribune Newspapers critic.