The true story behind True Story is so outlandishly incredible that it seems the work of a fevered screenwriter in the throes of a chemical high: a disgraced New York Times journalist finds out an accused murderer has been parading around as him but, instead of becoming enraged, the writer becomes weirdly drawn to his identity thief, going so far as to agree to author a book about him and his case.
They form a mutual admiration society of sorts that seems unfathomable to those outside their twisted circle.
This relationship is at the heart of the bestselling True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, by Michael Finkel, the real-life reporter who became ensnared in the life of the wyly Christian Longo.
It’s also at the center of the intermittently fascinating movie version from first-time features director Rupert Goold and stars Jonah Hill and James Franco in roles that, for once, don’t ask them to be caricatures of arrested adolescence.
Hill is Finkel, a man who finds himself shamed, humiliated and jobless when it’s uncovered that his big New York Times Sunday magazine piece on child slavery in Africa — one that he thinks might get him a Pulitzer — is riddled with untruths.
Back at home in Montana, he’s reunited with his girlfriend, Jill (Felicity Jones), but faces the daunting prospect of rebuilding his career and reputation.
A call from a reporter (Ethan Suplee) at Portland’s The Oregonian changes everything. Longo (Franco), an Oregon man charged with slaughtering his wife and three children, has been telling people that he is New York Times reporter Michael Finkel.
This sparks curiosity in Finkel, who decides to meet Longo. The accused criminal tells Finkel that he’s a longtime fan of his writing — and that’s why he cloaked himself in Finkel’s identity.
Finkel becomes a fan of Longo’s as well, though exactly what he sees in him — a powerful, seductive personality, a way to redeem his journalistic sins, or the cash register for a big payday — is opaque.
They’re both using each other, and may be lying to each other, but to what ends?
It calls to mind the superior In Cold Blood but, approached on its own terms, True Story has its virtues.
Franco is captivating as Longo, toggling easily between sincere and sinister. Jones doesn’t have much to do, but her big scene with Franco when she visits Longo in jail is seismic in its intensity.
If the jailhouse scenes between Franco and Hill had this much punch, True Story would have benefited.
In fact, the weakest link is Hill, who turns in a solid performance but doesn’t quite capture the turmoil that someone like Finkel must have been going through.
Unlike Franco, Hill can’t shake the shadow from his comedic past so easily.
He pulled it off in Moneyball, but the ghosts of The Wolf of Wall Street and 22 Jump Street loom large.
Working from a script he co-wrote with David Kajganich, director Goold keeps the emotional tones as muted as the Pacific Northwest skies that haunt the film’s landscapes.
Though True Story rarely explodes, it can’t extinguish the fires of interest stoked by its perplexing premise.
A dialogue-heavy drama with few easy answers, coming on the eve of the summer superhero assault, is something to be savored, warts and all.
And be sure to stay through the end credits, which update the audience on what’s happened to the main characters. You’re in for one final shock of incredulity.
Cary Darling, 817 390-7571
Director: Rupert Goold
Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones
Rated: R (strong language, disturbing material)
Running time: 100 min.