When we last saw Jonah Hill and James Franco on screen together, one was screaming about cumming on magazines and the other was being raped by Satan in the terrifically unfunny This Is the End, a movie about the end of the world whose making likely symbolizes the end of the world.
True Story has smaller fish to fry, and it’s thankfully a drama. If you’ve been following Franco and Hill, you know they can do the heavier stuff (Hill in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, Franco in 127 Hours and Palo Alto). That these two are pals gives True Story an existential stink, but they, and the movie, acquit themselves well.
Like its title suggests, True Story is the true story (or at least it started out that way) of Michael Finkel (Hill), a disgraced New York Times reporter, and Christian Longo (Franco). As the movie opens, Finkel is fired for compositing characters in a New York Times Magazine cover story (a serious journalism no-no). Longo is hiding out in Mexico from police, using Finkel’s name as cover while running from authorities after his wife and three children turn up dead in Oregon.
Finkel gets a call from a local reporter in Oregon (Ethan Suplee—always nice to see him) about the crime and sets out to meet Longo in person. Longo, at least in Franco’s portrayal, is a measured, thoughtful man. Franco’s performance—purposely—leaves lots of gaps in Longo’s story, and Franco is content to leave those gaps unfilled with a blank face, until later in the movie.
Of course, Finkel sees Longo’s story as a chance at journalistic redemption, and Longo sees it as an opportunity to get out the truth (whatever that means to him). Longo says he’ll give Finkel the exclusive, and Finkel sells the book idea to HarperCollins, on the notion that Longo will plead not guilty to all of the charges against him. But when Longo pleads guilty to two of the murders and not guilty to the other two, that hurts Finkel’s plan, and he begins to see that Longo is, if nothing else, unreliable.
That’s the crux of the story, and much of it is set in a stark county jail as Finkel interviews Longo. Hill and Franco use their best assets—Hill his thoughtfulness, and Franco his charm and ability to make his face blank while somehow still showing emotion—in their long scenes together. It’s a good use of time, though it does leave some of the other characters hanging.
For example, Finkel has a girlfriend, Jill (Felicity Jones), who has so little to do on screen, you wonder why she agreed to the part—until her one bravura scene in the jail opposite Franco, and she nails it. It’s also a pleasant surprise to see the underused Gretchen Mol show up in a handful of scenes as Finkel’s editor.
There are no big chase scenes or explosive moments. True Story is a quiet but tense rumination on the nature of truth. It’s worth it, but it requires patience.
Directed by Rupert Goold
With Hill, Franco and Jones
UA DeVargas 6
Santa Fe Reporter