Based on a true story, True Story tells the story of a NYT journalist disgraced for publishing an untrue story about neo-African slavery who must earn back his mag-cover reputation by penning the true story of a wily, potential homicidal killer notorious for telling untrue stories. Got it? Good. Director Rupert Goold‘s doesn’t bother trying to reinvent the wheel with this 2001 true crime saga/Christian Longo biopic so much as he flips the genre’s tropes on their back and proceeds to dissect with a spoon in slow-moving, dull-edged pokes and prods. The result is psychologically unsettling – and speaks to the hazy nature of truth and truth-telling in journalism – but often the pathway is too humdrum and lacking in the significant battle of wits that such a feature truly demands to really get any blood boiling.
James Franco‘s shady simpers have always lent him a kind of notable incredulity and his best performances have come from a place of being able to exploit that to his characters’ advantage. From Aron Ralston to Saul Silver, Franco emotes through his half-cocked smile and stoney, squinty peepers. For however half-baked and half-witted the writer/director/actor/poet/professor/artist can come across as, there’s something genuinely unnerving about casting his baby browns and easy grin as those of a bonafide psychopath but, due to a script that is decidedly set to simmer, he never gets to really explore the character’s darkest depths to fulfilling – or particularly worthwhile – degree. Rather the project, like Franco’s role within it, is served undercooked and is ultimately underwhelming.
Sitting across the aisle from Franco’s murderous sycophant is a clean-cut Jonah Hill as Michael Finkel, the aforementioned defrocked journo. He wound up here in a round about way involving identity theft (when captured, Longo was posing as Finkel) and pure dumb luck (a phone call from a party interested in the scoop.) Having been stripped of his position at the New York Times and deemed untouchable by its many competitors, Finkel would be the last man to land an exclusive with a recently captured topper of the FBI’s Most Wanted List but Longo, for reasons not fully clear, has invited Finkel to his stainless steel conference room in exchange for “writing lessons” and friendly convos. You see Longo is a dedicated Finkel fan – or so he says – and wants to learn to hone his writing prowess at the foot of a master. And potential master fibber. After all, there’s not that many great avenues for self-expression for the incarcerated and Longo has always craved an audience.
As Finkel and Longo circle one another, becoming dangerously close and blasting past the line of unprofessional-ism early on and with relish, an unconventional game of cat and mouse unfolds. Goold’s game playing is meant to keep the audience on their toes but he can’t shake the feeling of being too obvious and too oblivious to his obviousness. As we’re expected to parse out whether Longo is a David Gale or a Hannibal Lecter – a patsy or a true psychopath – the film hems much closer to the dramatic success of the former (sitting at 19% on Rotten Tomatoes).
Felicity Jones steps in briefly to jumpstart the coronary pumps but her character – the most interesting in the film – is mostly relegated to the offscreen or in charge of sulky but supportive backrubs. When she does rise from the depths to blast her unbridled, fearless opinion of Longo at his own self-satisfied face, Franco again fails to take charge of the scene and the character, leaving him to lie flat as a scolded pup and with just about as much agency.
Though Hill and Franco have played together well in the past – This Is the End and, to a lesser extent, Knocked Up – seeing the two take on such self-serious roles – stripped of even the smallest inkling of black comedy – is far less satisfying than one might hope for. Though for admittedly different reasons than you might expect. Neither flat-out fail (The Interview) or fall on their face (The Sitter) so much as they just do their jobs competently and without any fanfare to speak of. Each have worked as dramatists in their own right but the near-inspired union here is one tear away from disintegrating into a black hole of complete and utter humorlessness.
You would think that the casting of such comedic icons would demand us to reinvent our perspective on the two high-profile jesters. That is just not the case. For a two-hander so focused on these dueling central performances, neither has enough seasoning to turn the product tasty nor ship off our assumption that once “cut” is called, one of the two launch into a one-liner of the “that’s what she said” variety. Give me True Story the Comedy next time. At least that would be different. Instead, we’re treated to a blandly flavored re-heated crime saga that, though not bad, is highly forgettable (even a week after screening it, I almost forgot I had seen it at all.)