It’s not everyday that a journalist sells the film rights to his memoir so that a movie can be made portraying that journalist as both unethical and gullible, so kudos to Michael Finkel for chutzpah. Would that the big-screen adaptation of “True Story” had as much clarity and insight as its author has moxie.
There’s no accusing the filmmakers of false advertising; after all, they didn’t call the movie “Interesting Story” or “Meaningful Story.”
Finkel’s 2005 book tells his tale of meeting accused murderer Christian Longo, and the elaborate dance of deception that unfolds between the family man on trial for brutally murdering his wife and three children and the disgraced journalist from The New York Times who had just been fired for turning several African teenagers into one composite “character” in a Sunday magazine piece about the modern-day slave trade. It’s a tale with the makings of a taut cinematic two-hander, but there’s always many a slip twixt the page and the screen.
Jonah Hill stars as Finkel, and at first the role seems to be a perfect fit for the actor, playing a writer who’s casually brilliant, prickly with some co-workers and warm with others, and above all, completely convinced of his own brilliance. It’s a crushing blow for him when his editors at the Times start asking tough questions about the story, leading to his ignominious dismissal. (The film never mentions it, but Finkel’s fall from grace happened at around the same time as Jayson Blair’s.)
Slinking in defeat to Montana and the loving arms of his wife Jill (Felicity Jones), Finkel tries desperately to get back into the long-form journalism game, to no avail. Then one day, he gets a call from Pat Frato (Ethan Suplee), a reporter in Oregon who contacts Finkel about the recent arrest of Longo because, while the murderer was on the lam in Mexico, Longo used Finkel’s name and identity as an alias.
That’s enough to send Finkel to Oregon to meet the accused. Longo (James Franco) professes to be a fan, and he promises to give the scoop-starved Finkel an exclusive on his story in exchange for writing lessons. So far, so “In Cold Blood,” right?
“True Story,” alas, never quite jells as the suspenseful true-crime narrative it’s trying to be. For one thing, there’s barely any doubt that Longo committed the murders of which he’s accused; early on, he even attempts to muddy the waters of his trial by pleading guilty to some charges but innocent to others. And if we figure out he’s lying before Hill-as-Finkel does, then why should we be interested in this writer’s redemption if he’s so easily hornswoggled?
First-time feature filmmaker Rupert Goold (who co-adapted Finkel’s book with David Kajganich, “The Invasion”) has a TV background, which apparently explains his decision to shoot Franco and Hill in lots of extreme close-ups, to reveal the characters’ subtle deceptions and manipulations. That’s the apparent idea, anyway, but it doesn’t quite come off — Franco seems shiftier and shiftier, thus negating any suspense regarding his character motivations, while Hill, for his many talents as a screen actor, reads blank and vapid when his face is filling the screening.
Then there’s the movie’s attempt to shoot Jill in such a way as to imply that she’s somehow in danger, which mainly feels cheap and exploitative, culminating in a creepy phone call and eventual face-to-face confrontation with Longo that the ever-bland Jones can’t quite pull off.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of “True Story” is that it tries so hard to be classy and capital-I Important when a little luridness might have spiced up the proceedings. As it is, this story may be true, but as it’s told here, it’s rather dull.