A very serious film starring two actors who are nearly impossible to take seriously, Rupert Goold’s True Story is its own biggest fan. It’s a film that obviously thinks very highly of itself, with all of its stern faces and handheld camerawork. The most obvious problem is that the stern faces that all of these wobbly frames are zoomed in on belong to Jonah Hill and James Franco, who — in this case — are clawing desperately for some sort of importance. Perhaps it’s just personal taste, but these might be the last two actors I want to watch carry this kind of heavy, emotional crime drama, something compounded by the idea that their apparent ideal of drollness boils down to various dumfounded expressions. Neither has the gravitas to pull off the kind of nuanced performance the story demands, instead looking like a couple of guys acting as if they’re acting.
It’s simply a matter of miscasting, though I’m not sure the material lends itself to anything much better. I’m not familiar with the book — Michael Finkel’s memoir of the same name — that the film is based on, but judging from the film, it seems to fancy itself as a modern day version of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. By proxy, the film feels a lot like Bennett Miller’s Capote (2005), following a journalist (here it’s Hill as Finkel) who finds himself enraptured by the murderer (Franco as Christian Longo) he’s writing about. There are some different layers here, since Finkel is a disgraced journalist, fired by the New York Times for fudging a story, who has the perfect story fall in his lap when an accused murderer, Longo, is captured in Mexico pretending to be him.
Obviously, the film revolves around Finkel and Longo, as Michael visits Christian — a supposedly charming (for Franco, I guess) possible sociopath — who endears himself enough to Michael to make him question the man’s guilt. The film centers on the two, as Michael is slowly drawn in, but also has the added layer of meditating on the notion of truth, putting Michael’s transgressions in relief against Longo’s stories of what really happened when his wife and three kids turned up dead. This also ties into the lengths Michael will go — such as keeping his notes away from prosecutors — to get his story, his book deal and his career back, even if it means letting a murderer roam free.
Unfortunately, none of it feels specifically fleshed out or necessarily pertinent, and the lack of a strong cast (even Felicity Jones gets stuck in this doe-eyed stupor) certainly doesn’t help things. The film is such the picture of mediocrity — a dull cast, a forgettable plot with no real dramatic arc, concerns that aren’t as intelligent as the film thinks they are — that True Story is nothing more than a nice, forgettable attempt. Rated R for language and some disturbing material.