Movie Review: “True Story”

Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Ethan Suplee, Robert John Burke
Rupert Goold

Jonah Hill and James Franco have shown off their dramatic chops in a variety of projects over the past five years, earning Oscar nominations along the way (Hill for “Moneyball” and Franco for “127 Hours”), but for some reason, it’s still difficult to imagine the pair starring together in a movie that isn’t a comedy. Perhaps it’s their association to Seth Rogen’s all-star group of friends, yet no matter how weird it might be to see them sharing the screen in a starkly serious drama like “True Story,” they do a commendable job with the material. The film is pretty standard fare that, considering the crazy-but-true nature of the story, deserved something a little more memorable than this, but it’s to no fault of the actors involved.

In late 2001, journalist Mike Finkel (Hill) was fired from his job at the New York Times when it was revealed that he fudged some of the facts in his latest feature about child slavery in West Africa. Around that same time, Oregon resident Chris Longo (Franco) was arrested for the murder of his wife and three kids after briefly hiding out in Mexico where he had been posing as Finkel. The reason? He was a fan of his work. When Mike learns about these strange events, he contacts Chris requesting to speak with him, who agrees to tell Mike his side of the story in exchange for writing lessons and the promise that nothing will be published until after the trial. For Mike, it’s a chance to redeem his career, but as he spends more time with Chris and becomes convinced that he may actually be innocent, he’s unwittingly pulled into Chris’ game.

The movie is comprised mainly of scenes between Mike and Chris talking in the prison visitation room, and in that regard, it feels a lot like a stage play, although not quite as contained. Director Rupert Goold’s only previous screen work includes adaptations of Shakespeare’s “Richard II” and “Macbeth,” and he brings those theatrical sensibilities to his feature film debut as well. Although the numerous one-on-ones between Mike and Chris become a little monotonous after a while, it’s also where the two actors deliver their best work. Hill gets the more substantial role (even if he’s not very believable as a hard-hitting investigative journalist), but it’s Franco who leaves the bigger mark as Chris, holding his cards so close to his chest that you’re never sure what to make of him. Felicity Jones, meanwhile, is wasted as Mike’s supportive but concerned wife, although she does get the movie’s best scene in her only face-to-face with Franco.

It’s an intriguing story made even more so by the questionable credibility of Finkel and Longo, who both seem to believe that an entertaining story is better than one tamed by the truth. The problem, however, is that it’s delivered in such a straight-forward, no-frills manner that you could just as easily read the book on which the film is based and you wouldn’t really miss anything. The sole difference is that whereas the book was written as a sort of self-serving mea culpa that only put Finkel’s credibility into greater doubt, the movie refuses to let either subject off the hook, even going so far as to shine a light on Finkel’s morally bankrupt motives. It doesn’t change the fact that you’re still left to wonder how much of what Finkel wrote actually happened, but it’s Goold’s examination of truth and deception that makes “True Story” a good if unspectacular true crime drama.