Thursday, April 16, 2015

Seeking the truth behind a murder

James Franco and Jonah Hill get serious in True Story.

In True Story, Jonah Hill and James Franco put on serious faces to tell a story about journalistic ethics and murder. But before we get to how well they do, some background may be helpful.

True Story is the big-screen adaptation of Michael Finkel's 2005 book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. Let's begin with the "Mea Culpa" of Finkel's title.

Finkel's journalistic career hit a major snag when he was fired for fudging facts in a New York times magazine cover story about the use of slave labor on African cocoa plantations.

In search of a more compelling read, Finkel created a composite character without telling readers that he was combining the stories of a variety of young men who'd been terribly exploited.

Months after his New York Times debacle, Finkel learned that an Oregon man who had been arrested for murdering his wife and three children had been posing as Finkel while hiding from the law in Mexico.

Seeing a path to possible journalistic redemption and a book contract, Finkel visited Longo in jail, wondering why the accused murderer had tried to steal his identity.

Simple, Longo told him, he very much admired Finkel's writing. He was an ardent fan.

Finkel developed a relationship with Longo, who proceeded to tell him his story, claiming that he was innocent. But he also refused to tell Finkel what really happened, asking instead that Finkel teach him how to write.

For his part, Finkel thought he was a good enough reporter to induce Longo to spill whatever beans need spilling.

Although not without interest, the resultant movie never fully realizes the mind-bending possibilities that result when a journalist (Hill) whose work has come under question meets a prisoner (Franco) whose account of events immediately qualifies as suspect. Facing the death penalty if convicted, Longo had plenty of reason to lie.

British theater director Rupert Goold directs in competent but conventional fashion as he presents the story of a writer (with an agenda, of course) who collaborated with a prisoner (with an agenda of his own).

Hill and Franco worked together in the comedy This is the End, but are paired here in a dramatic effort that's sprinkled with brief flashbacks to the crime.

Franco brings low-key calm to the role of an accused murderer, as well as a bit of rumpled charm.

We know that Hill can act (see Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street), but I couldn't quite buy him as an avid, ambitious and ultimately desperate reporter, perhaps because the script makes Finkel too much of a one-note character. Having screwed up, he now wants to restart his career.

Almost everything that transpires between Finkel and Longo in the pivotal jail scenes clings to the surface; their one-on-one exchanges lack the kind of subtext that would have given the movie's ethical issues more dimension.

The screenplay by Goold and David Kajganich tells us that Longo's a horrible narcissist, but doesn't really dig into his personality. Half the time, the movie doesn't even seem interested in whether Longo actually committed the crime.

Felicity Jones appears as Finkel's wife, but doesn't have much to do other than pop up for a jail house visit with Longo, delivered with more conviction than anything else in the movie.

And that's the rub here. Goold's movie says many of the right things, but doesn't always dramatize them in compelling ways. The fact that both men are acting out roles should have resulted in a dizzying look at how men in high-pressure situations are called upon to create themselves. Besides, we needed to know more about both these guys.

True Story is a decent enough movie, but it should (and could) have been brilliant.

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