The real problem with “True Story” is contained in its title. The story isn’t too good to be true, but rather too true to be good. Dealing with a real crime and with real people, the filmmakers had no choice but to limit themselves to the facts, but in this case the facts were only reasonably interesting, about enough to power a 15-minute anecdote, but not a feature film.
Still, there’s an atmosphere here of a quality movie, one which the people involved really wanted to make. Jonah Hill plays Michael Finkel, who starts the film as a star at the New York Times, writing long cover stories for the magazine section. He is caught doing something wrong – not morally heinous, but journalistically unjustifiable. In a story about children in West Africa, he creates a composite character out of the experiences of several children. As a result, he finds himself a freelance writer, struggling to get work.
At around the same time, Christian Longo (James Franco), an Oregon man who murdered his wife and three children, was living as a fugitive in Mexico. For an alias, he pretended to be a New York Times writer named “Michael Finkel.” After Longo is apprehended and this becomes known, Finkel writes Longo a letter asking to meet him, and then travels to Oregon for a face-to-face encounter. He finds a polite, strangely appealing fellow who says that he’s a fan.
Based on Finkel’s memoir of the same name, “True Story” is not especially concerned with the facts of the crime or with penetrating Longo’s psychology with regard to motive. We never see the murders, nor are we ever entirely sure how they happened. It’s not merely that the victims are off to the side, but they never really get their due or even come into clear focus.
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The movie’s interest instead resides in the relationship between Finkel and Longo, and yet even then, there isn’t much there. If Longo were a needy creep (like, say, Perry Smith in “Capote”), or if Finkel were emotionally susceptible to Longo in some deep way (like Capote in “Capote”), it might have been different. As it stands, there is little going on between them, except for Longo’s trying to play Finkel and Finkel’s willingness to be played.
Indeed, the very fact that Finkel enters the Longo story from a place of professional weakness becomes a problem in the dramatic structure. It is dramatically important, for example, that Longo be a strain on Finkel’s life, that contact with this horrible individual should eat at him. In fact, Longo is the best thing that could have happened to Finkel. It’s his professional lifeline. Just a few months after being unable to make a living, he gets to tell his wife (Felicity Jones) that Harper Collins is offering him a $250,000 advance for a book on Longo.
In the movie, the wife reacts with ambivalence. Just an offhand guess – that’s one scene where the screenwriters used dramatic license. “Honey, I just made 250K” doesn’t usually get a blank stare.
As Finkel, Hill goes through most of the movie looking either dumbfounded or vaguely petulant, as though something were annoying him, but he refuses say what. His is not a winning portrait, and I suspect the movie needed it to be. As for Franco, having an actor of his good looks and magnetism play a monster automatically makes things interesting, and every so often you will look at Franco and think what a fine job of acting he’s doing. But you'll think that even as you are not believing a moment of it.
C CAST: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones.
DIRECTOR: Rupert Goold.
WRITERS: Goold and David Kajganich, based on Michael Finkel’s memoir.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes.
RATING: R (language and some disturbing material).