Movie review: True Story
Self-absorbed characters desperate for ego redemption keep audience at arm’s length from new Jonah Hill-James Franco mystery, writes Katherine Monk
3 out of 5
Starring: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones
Directed by: Rupert Goold
Running time: 100 minutes
By Katherine Monk
James Franco and Jonah Hill aren’t the most likable actors on the planet. Franco possesses a permanent smarm scar from the Oscars, and Hill has a tendency of overplaying his aw-shucks, I’m-just-honoured-to-be-nominated, schlemiel appeal.
These pesky irritations can play a role in how we perceive their performances, because so much of acting depends on generating sympathy for a given character. However, in the case of True Story, our reluctance to embrace either of these two actors is the film’s biggest strength off the blocks.
The opening scene belongs to Hill as he takes on the role of real-life New York Times reporter Michael Finkel. He’s in Africa, writing a story on the Ivory Coast slave trade and interviewing victims. Played by anyone else, we’d see a noble soothsayer bearing witness to atrocities, but Hill skillfully steps sideways, and let’s us see the hungry ego of a big city news reporter who already sees “Pulitzer Winner” in his bio.
Finkel heads back to New York, files his magazine feature and wins praise from his editors and his peers, who congratulate him on his selflessness and reportorial savvy. Hill wears the post-publication swagger like a seasoned tool. Then the nightmare begins.
Called into the boardroom with senior editors to explain some problems in his reportage, Finkel goes from sipping the nectar of success to slurping transmission fluid from the bottom of the bus.
He’s promptly fired, humiliated and exiled to the wilds of Montana. Out of nowhere, he gets a call from a reporter in Oregon who tells him a man charged with murdering his family has been going by the alias of “Michael Finkel.”
You can hear the door of unsavory opportunity open with a sickening creak. Finkel wants to meet the accused, and by the time he sits down with Christian Longo (Franco), we can already feel a sense of mutual desperation.
Finkel knows the chances of resurrecting his career are close to nil, and Longo knows he’s facing life in prison. They need each other – but not in a good way.
They engage in a parasitic dance, crafting lines and lies in a bid to get exactly what they want from each other, which is ego validation: Together, they feel important and relevant. Alone, they know they’re just pathetic.
This struggle for personal meaning as a function of fame is where the drama in True Story lives, because it’s a false equation.
Both characters are so deeply immersed in their own fabrications, any bid at genuine truth is doomed from the beginning. The best part is: We don’t care, because we’re not expected to like either one.
Though Hill’s Finkel clearly ends up the winner of the sympathy vote because he didn’t kill anyone, he has all the charisma of a mollusk.
Meanwhile, the naturally charismatic Franco comes off like a lobotomized version of Hannibal Lecter – menacing in a vacant sort of way.
Director Rupert Goold tries to pull the pulpy plot into artistic spaces by keeping his frames rather static and the palette limited to muted tones, but as much as he’s copying Capote, it doesn’t click.
Finkel and Longo aren’t symbols of existential angst or the absurdly thin line between life and death. They are symptoms of a self-absorbed, fame obsessed, ego-driven society, which explains why the movie feels so hollow, and finally, so non-engaging: We don’t want the true story. We’d rather have a sexy lie instead.