True Story (2015) / Drama-Mystery

MPAA Rated: R for language and some disturbing material
Running Time: 100 min.

Cast: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee, Gretchen Mol, Robert John Burke, Genevieve Angelson, Betty Gilpin
Director: Rupert Goold
Screenplay: Rupert Goold, David Kajganich (Based on the memoir by Michael Finkel)

Review published April 21, 2015

Now, just because you see a film starring Jonah Hill (22 Jump Street, How to Train Your Dragon 2) and James Franco (The Interview, Homefront) doesn't mean you're in for a raunchy comedy, though I'm sure there is at least one person who has made that mistake when choosing what to go to at the theater.  There's really nothing funny in this drama based on a true story of a tarnished journalist and an alleged murderer coming together to write a book about the latter's experiences that led up to his wife and three children murdered, leaving him as prime suspect number one.

That tarnished journalist is Mike Finkel, who looked like he was on a fast-track to winning a Pulitzer Prize before his latest big article was found to have been potentially loose with his recording of facts (he crafted an amalgam main subject out of experiences that occurred to five people), embarrassing his employer, the New York Times, and leaving him in a difficult position to find another job with so much egg on his face.  An opportunity comes from a strange place when it is discovered that a man named Christian Longo had been apprehended and charged with the murder of his family, claiming that he is Mike Finkel, reporter for the New York Times.  Finkel's curiosity draws him to reach out, and soon Longo, who respects Finkel's ability, offers to divulge his story for a book to be published after the trial, in exchange for the journalist teaching him how to write.  The two become friends, but that friendship is strained by the salacious details of the case, as well as the strain on Finkel's relationship with his supportive girlfriend, Jill (Jones, The Theory of Everything).

It is based on a true story, and one in which the wiggle room with the truth is a bit more subdued given that it is based on a journalist's memoirs, and that journalist is still alive to see and call out the film should it become "too Hollywood" to be an accurate representation of his recollections.  Theater vet Rupert Goold brings a flair for the dramatic to the proceedings, as this is a good looking film, with three Academy Award-nominated actors at the forefront, and yet the screenplay, credited to Goold and David Kajganich (Blood Creek, The Invasion), feels clunky, not written with the kind of lofty prose one might potentially get from reading the account by Finkel himself.

The film dabbles here and there with some interesting themes, such as whether a true story is more powerful if it gets all of its facts right, or if it spins a more impactful yarn through the writer striving for a higher meaning above the facts that make for a more compelling account.  It seems an irony to criticize a film based on a true story centered on people who embellish stories to tell a more advantageous tale for not doing the same, but certainly Goold's film could have used a bit more solidifying of the themes before building the true story upon it, rather than the other way around.

Though the two main players give credible performances, they aren't spectacular, and perhaps might have been more interesting with thespians more suited to these roles.  The Jonah Hill/Felicity Jones romantic pairing seems perplexing for a number of obvious reasons, especially when he's shown as inattentive generally, and not particularly stable, both career-wise and emotionally.  Plus, her role feels superfluous to the main thrust of the film, and with the exception of one key scene (a mostly fabricated injection), certainly does not require anyone of Jones' caliber to be cast in it, if she needed to be a big part of the story at all.  The interplay between Hill and Franco seems to suggest a mutual admiration of sorts, but one never quite gets that feeling of deep friendship the movie seems to draw out.  Capote handled this subject matter far more adeptly, though it obviously had more subtext as to why writer and would-be criminal might form an unstated bond.

Ultimately, True Story bears a certain watchability, and does raise enough questions to ponder long afterward, especially regarding manipulations, truth, lies, and alibis.  However, for a film that explores, with great gusto, the power of words and the storytellers behind them, the fact that the manner in which it tells its own "true story" is too obvious and not inherently compelling leave True Story left wanting a treatment from someone who knows how to tell a proper one.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo