Review: 'True Story'

Talents are wasted and the truth stretched in 'True Story'
STRANGER THAN FICTION: James Franco flirts and Jonah Hill wonders: 'Is he hitting on me?'

Simultaneously and promoting exculpatory baloney, True Story contrasts two evildoers. One is Mike Finkel, a New York Times Magazine writer, disgraced after he used composite characters in a cover story about modern day slavery on the African cocoa plantations. The other is Christian Longo (played here by Palo Alto's own James Franco). Longo was merely a multiple murderer.

Finkel (Jonah Hill) is barred forever from the Times—literally in the wilderness, hiding out in snowy Montana. It's there Finkel learns that the suspect in a quadruple homicide stole his identity while on the run in Mexico. The reporter heads to the coast of Oregon to meet the jailed Longo, in custody as the prime suspect for snuffing his wife and three kids.

What follows is a seduction as ardent as any in the cinematic history of bromance: Franco flirts outrageously, crinkly eyes dancing. The soulful brown peepers are oddly complimented by his jumpsuit. Truly, orange is the new black. Hill, fattish, owlish, asthmatic (the real Finkel looks more like Chevy Chase) is as expressionless and huge in closeup as a Chuck Close painting. Director Rupert Goold keeps the two in increasingly monotonous full-face shots so tight that you can study where they missed spots shaving.

As Finkel and Longo collaborate on a book, we're meant to wonder whether this suave Hannibal Franco is going to make Jonah Hill his Clarisse. Franco is a lot of things, but is he truly diabolical or scary? Isn't he too self-charmed to really let the evil in?

The "beard"—the girl whose presence proves a man is straight—is a role so many actresses have allotted to them in our great cinematic age of the bromance. Jill (Felicity Jones) is the woman who waits at home for Finkel to return, and she is so miscast it hurts. Goold, best known for arresting Shakespeare productions overseas (such as a Stalin-era Macbeth) isn't strong on the way Americans relate to each other. And the relationship between Jill and Mike is particularly hard to credit. Jill is supposed to be a rare books librarian at Bozeman State University. There, her work consists of gazing pensively at a picture of the devil in an illuminated medieval manuscript.

Beard is a bad enough role—Jiminy Cricket is even worse. In Jill's confrontation with Longo, the scene is conceived as salesmanship instead of acting. When selling something or educating pupils, there's nothing wrong with the rule "tell them what you're going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them." In an acting scene, this procedure looks exasperating. Jill delivers her rebuke to the foxy murderer from the high ground, with classical music accompaniment. She delivers the telling-off rapidly, and she looks tweaked, bitty and cross.

The movie is titled True Story so we'll know it's been fictionalized. That unbelievability is visible in Cancun settings that look like Barcelona. The unlikeliness continues in the arrival and departure of a lone voice of common sense, a lawman played by Robert John Burke; he first tries to coax Finkel into helping the prosecution and then slaps him down. The unbelievability is also in the idea that publishers don't have any protocol for dealing with true crime accounts, other than first handing over an advance and then telephoning in and screaming.

Cinema doesn't have to moralize, but it ought to teach us some pity. The announcement that Longo finally got published is spun as a triumph of hustle—in fact Longo was trying to do some good, using his notoriety for an op-ed piece arguing for the right of prisoners to donate their organs. I don't fancy the way True Story shackles the viewers in a chain of guilt: you want easy answers from your newspaper, ergo you're complicit. You want to understand the criminal mind, ergo, you're an accessory after the fact. The movie seems small-minded in a cinematic world that contains Hitchcock's works—say, Shadow of a Doubt—films that place a dark mirror before us, so we understand both the passions of a killer and the killer inside us.

True Story

R; 100 Min

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