Film Review: True Story

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It’s the season of wily accused killers: first, the notorious Robert Durst, who beat one murder rap but managed to get himself arrested for a related homicide thanks to a possibly unwitting confession in the HBO documentary series “The Jinx.” Now comes another true story, titled True Story, about accused murderer Christian Longo and his very curious relationship with onetime star New York Times reporter Michael Finkel.

The curiosity factor stems from the fact that Finkel first learned of Longo after hearing that the latter was impersonating him while on the lam in Mexico. Even curiouser, Finkel had recently been ousted from the Times for the ethical no-no of creating a composite character in a Sunday magazine cover story on the modern slave trade in Africa. Despite his disgrace, he managed to parley his experience with Longo into a best-selling book, which is the basis of the Fox Searchlight movie under discussion here. True story? Perhaps. Potential unreliable narrator? Definitely maybe.

Another talking point of True Story is the two actors in the leads. Jonah Hill (Finkel) and James Franco (Longo) previously co-starred in the raucous This Is the End, and they’ve both been key players in outrageous stoner comedies also penned by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. Yes, they’ve both established their dramatic bona fides in other projects, but their teaming in a very somber mystery/courtroom tale is still rather unexpected.

Longo is accused of a shocking crime: the murder of his wife and three young children. Finkel, meanwhile, doesn’t take umbrage at Longo’s identity theft but perversely sees this connection as his chance for a journalistic scoop that could restore his reputation. (Seeing Finkel’s eyes all but flash dollar signs makes an odd confessional moment in the movie, since he did indeed profit from his eventual publishing deal.) Longo seems to imply that there’s more to the story than the police record and that’s he innocent, and he’s willing to give Finkel his exclusive account in exchange for writing lessons. (Yes, Longo would really like to be a journalist like his new ally.)

Director Rupert Goold and David Kajganich’s screenplay dangles the possibility that Longo is indeed not guilty, but there are twists ahead, including a baffling mixed plea from Longo at his trial. The one person who seems to see him clearly is Finkel’s wife Jill, played by recent Oscar nominee Felicity Jones, who spends much of the film on the sidelines fretting but is given two key interchanges with Longo late in the film (one fact-based, one not).

Franco keeps his performance just cool and ambiguous enough to make us question whether Longo is more victim than victimizer. Hill nails the desperation and opportunism of Finkel, but he isn’t all that convincing as a star reporter with slippery standards; a more effortlessly charismatic actor would have made us believe in the heights from which Finkel had fallen.

Goold, a major British stage director making his theatrical feature debut, guides a handsome production which manages some visual interest despite the dialogue-driven script. But a story this strange and intriguing could have used more juice. Ultimately, True Story is as frosty and aloof as the enigmatic Christian Longo.

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