True Story tells the tale of Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), a disgraced journalist trying to find his next big story after being fired from the New York Times for fudging the facts. Nobody will touch him, but a story falls in his lap when a man wanted for murdering his wife and children is found in Mexico hiding under Finkel’s identity. Finkel meets with Christian Longo (James Franco), the accused, and begins an ongoing discourse that has bestseller written all over it. This is indeed, a ‘true story’ based on Finkel’s memoir, but without even looking into the actual events, you can’t help but feel like facts are once again getting fudged and forgotten in order to make an easily digestible and suspenseful story.
Probably the biggest misstep of True Story is casting Hill and Franco in the lead roles. Sure, the two both have Oscar nominations and have proven themselves capable of more than comedy, but their only previous collaboration was on the hilarious hit This Is The End, so it’s very difficult to disassociate them from those personas when seen together. The roles Hill was nominated for (Moneyball and Wolf of Wall Street) were supporting roles that didn’t require him to carry the film like this part does, nor were they as emotionally demanding. Sadly he does not seem up to the task yet. He doesn’t get much help from Franco, whose cute and creepy accused murderer schtick is very transparent. Their relationship and scenes together are the crux of the film, and ultimately they end up feeling like you’re watching a high school play.
There is a third Oscar nominated actor in this as well. Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) plays Finkel’s wife, who is supportive but does not approve of his relationship with Longo… that is basically the extent of her character’s function.
The actors do not deserve sole blame for this film not working. Coming from theatre, first time feature director Rupert Goold also adapted the script, and probably should have tried collaborating more with other filmmakers before jumping head first into filmmaking. The script works very hard to create tension by avoiding questions or only giving vague answers, all while eluding to a larger mystery and possibly even a conspiracy. We don’t see crucial parts of Longo and Finkel’s conversations, most notably Longo’s version of events the night his family was killed. This is the only mystery in the film, so it’s clear why it’s withheld, but it’s not subtle. Every time this information is avoided, we see the filmmaker at work, and we shouldn’t be able to see those strings.
There is zero subtext in this superficial film. Everything hovers 12 feet above the surface while they try to make a true crime story that ultimately does not deserve to be told. The main characters are flawed but that doesn’t make them complex. They are both narcissists who have a hard time with the truth, and the film tries to draw additional parallels between the killer and the journalist but they ultimately lead nowhere.
There was potential here for something better. Goold was right to concentrate on the strange relationship between Finkel and Longo that continues to this day, but he shouldn’t have made the murder the big mystery and the trial the climax. By doing so he was hedging his bets instead of relying on the strength of the ultimately more rewarding character study.