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True Story serves up half-baked drama

Jonah Hill & James Franco star in True Story
Jonah Hill & James Franco star in True Story

One man sits sweating in a shed somewhere in Africa. He bribes a young labourer into sharing the story of his enslavement. He tries to assure the labourer of the integrity of his disclosure with the knowledge that his interlocutor is “with the New York Times.” Another man struggles to ignite an electric votive candle in the Catedral de la Asunción in the centre of Mexico City. He asks for assistance from a fellow tourist, an attractive young German woman he will soon take to his bed in a nearby hotel. Both men claim to be an important reporter named Mike Finkel.

The first man (Jonah Hill) really is Mike Finkel. The second man (James Franco) is actually some schmuck from Oregon named Christian Longo suspected of murdering his entire family. True Story begins with both men, as Finkel puts it, getting stripped of their name. Finkel is fired by the Times for fudging facts on the Africa story, effectively destroying his name as a journalist. Longo is apprehended by the feds for the quadruple homicide, ending his masquerade as Finkel. After Finkel returns, humiliated and unemployable, to his rural Montana home, he hears about the Longo case and goes to visit Longo in the pen where he awaits trial. “I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching lately,” Finkel says. “I thought maybe you could tell me what it’s like to be me.”

Despite having little in common, the men connect. Finkel’s flattered. His identification with Longo is pure narcissism. Finkel decides to write a book with Longo. Longo wants Finkel to teach him to write—it’s not enough to tell his story, he wants to tell it elegantly. He sends Mike a dense manuscript, every page of text accented with hand-drawn illustrations erupting in the margins—Finkel does something similar in his note-taking. Just as the film strains to animate the woefully underwritten character of Finkel’s suffering wife (Felicity Jones), it strains to impart a ying-yang thing between Finkel and Longo while eliding much of what would constitute anything resembling a genuine connection. It also elides any substantial reasons why Finkel thinks he has such a great story on his hands. We don’t even know what Longo’s side of the story is. They seem to never talk about the murders.

Finkel’s relationship to Longo is meant to echo that of Truman Capote and Dick Hickock and Perry Smith, or, say, Emmanuel Carrère and Jean-Claude Romand. The question of a good story versus good justice looms over everything, but only in a superficial manner. (This question, and this entire story, may well be explored thoroughly in Finkel’s book upon which this film is based, but I’ve only seen the film and can’t credit the book for things that didn’t make it to the screen.) An ostensibly startling third-act revelation hardly comes as a surprise—it is the only explanation for Chris’s partial guilty plea. And why does no one ever mention what the forensics might suggest with regards to the identity of the perpetrator? True Story, the movie debut of theatre director Rupert Goold, casts a tasteful, sombre air and keeps its stars’ penchant for flamboyance well in check, but, like Longo’s story, it is conspicuously half-baked.

Opens Friday
True Story
Directed by Rupert Goold
Two stars

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