The fluorescent lights glare against the all-white walls and furniture of the jail visitation room. Two men sit across from each other, each accused of a crime. “So I read the paper,” says Jonah Hill (in the role of Michael Finkel) to James Franco, who sits across from him at a jail visitation room table, playing the role of alleged family murderer Christian Longo. “Did you do it?” Without missing a beat, Franco fires back, “I should be asking you the same thing.”
This brief exchange encompasses the two largest ways in which Rupert Goold’s latest film fails. First, delivered with a sad attempt at sincerity, these lines showcase the fact that the typically comedic duo of Franco and Hill never actually achieves a serious or believable tone; Second, the moment represents the overdone symbolic comparison Goold forces. Look at these men, the film seems to demand, and explain how they are any different—neither one honors the Truth. Ultimately Hill and Franco spend 100 minutes attempting to prove their merit as serious actors in a film that, for its part, detrimentally places an overwrought attempt at symbolism above any appreciable plot.
Based on a true story, the film traces the relationship that develops between the two men when, after being arrested in Mexico, Longo identifies himself as Michael Finkel. This grabs the attention of the failing journalist, who has just lost his job at the New York Times Magazine for fabricating parts of his most recent cover story. With no other employment prospects, Finkel travels across the country to cover Longo’s story, eventually turning it into a book titled, naturally, “True Story.”
The heavy-handed attempt to force a connection between the characters begins in the film’s opening scenes. The entire exposition is done in parallel fashion, interspersing moments from Finkel’s life with moments from Longo’s. This technique is utilized most blatantly to suggest that both men are guilty of lying, scenes of a recently disgraced Finkel mixing with shots of an imprisoned Franco. The shots in themselves are not poorly done, but the blaringly obvious message they are meant to convey takes away from any artistic merit they might have otherwise possessed.
While the blatant parallelism is bothersome, it does at least contribute to the overall plot and leaves nothing to be resolved. Such is not true for other lengths the film goes to in order to draw connections—most notably, the similarity in the men’s writing styles. Early in the movie, Longo writes his illustrated life story to Finkel. In an eerie moment, Finkel (who has been obsessively scouring the pages, nailing them to the walls of his girlfriend’s house) realizes that they are designed exactly like his personal journals, complete with small in-text illustrations and self-made page borders. This understandably rattles him, but unfortunately this riveting coincidence is not brought up again. It merely is tossed into the trashcan full of undeveloped and unnecessary comparisons.
While these elements are frustrating, the film is not entirely without merit. At times Goold’s cinematography is impressive, if not haunting. One such instance is a scene in which Longo calls Finkel’s girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones) late at night, claiming that he feels like he already knows her from his conversations with Finkel and wants to be her friend while relaying intimate details of her life back to her. As she moves through the room, obviously uncomfortable, Goold captures her image through the windows. Interspersed with shots of Longo running his fingers over the telephone, the scene expertly conveys a deeply troubling sense of voyeurism.
The cast is, likewise, not completely disappointing. While Franco and Hill fail to produce stellar performances—it is consistently impossible to distinguish whether Franco as an actor is delivering his lines without sincerity or playing a character who lives and speaks from behind a poorly constructed veneer, and Hill consistently over acts, coming across more as the star of an unfortunate high school play—Jones shines. Her portrayal of Jill never feels forced or overdone. Perhaps the film’s most damning mistake was not featuring her more.
“True Story” is ultimately a failure in that it takes a genuinely intriguing story and manages to take it nowhere. When initially deciding to tell Longo’s story, Finkel is met with some resistance. “I’m not sure Christina Longo deserves to have his story heard,” says one doubter. “Everybody deserves to have their story heard,” Finkel responds. Taken as an inspiration for the film, this statement raises a question—if every story deserves to be heard, does it also deserve to be told well? Judging from “True Story,” the answer would appear to be no.
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