Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Review: "True Story"

A man sits in a dusty tent in a foreign land, taking notes. He's asking some teen boys about awful experiences they've been through via an interpreter. We've seen this movie before: he's obviously a journalist, doing important work, and we know it's just a matter of time before we hear the words "New York Times" or "Washington Post." (It's the Times.)

One of the boys is reluctant to divulge. The man says you can trust me. More hesitation. So the journalist coolly flashes a $100 bill, neatly folded between his fingers. The interview concludes, the money changes hands, a terrific story later appears on the cover of...

...wait, what?!?

I would hope that most people would know that paying sources to talk is a big journalistic no-no. So obviously something's not right with this guy, Michael Finkel, played by Jonah Hill. We're not surprised when, a few minutes later into "True Story," he's fired for fudging the facts. Disgraced, shunned by colleagues, he retreats to his Montana hometown.

The problem is, the filmmakers want us to like this guy. Or, at least, identify with him. "True Story" is supposed to be the tale of a guy who reaches rock bottom and then pulls himself back to the top with the story of a lifetime. Instead, Finkel remains a moon-faced mystery, a guy who never fully confronts the depth of his deceptions.

If Finkel is a puzzle, then Christian Longo is a total enigma. He's the big story Finkel is after: a seemingly normal man who is accused of murdering his wife and three young children. His tale wouldn't even be known if it weren't for one thing: while on the lam, he sometimes used the alias of Mike Finkel of the New York Times.

The real Finkel is intrigued to know why Longo impersonated him, and reaches out to him in prison. "I was wondering if you could tell me what it's like to be me," he writes. The men meet. Longo is cryptic, but offers his story, exclusively. Finkel sees a shot at redemption and a big payday.

Things go on from there, with the two forming a quick bond with deep undercurrents of mistrust. Is Finkel repeating his mistakes, trying to mold the facts to fit the killer story he's pitched to book publishers? Is Longo a manipulative fabulist exploiting the reporter for his own ends?

This sounds more interesting than it actually is. Director Rupert Goold, who co-wrote the script with David Kajganich, wants to give us a mix of "Shattered Glass" and "In Cold Blood," a probing tale about the intersection of crime, truth and justice.

Instead, it turns into a rather dull succession of scenes in which Hill and Franco spar listlessly across a bare table in the prison interview room.

Hill, I think, is a promising young actor whose head has been swelled by a couple of Oscar nominations he clearly didn't deserve. He hasn't developed enough nuance in his screen presence to carry a dramatic picture. His Finkel comes across as a disaffected dope. Franco is better, snaky and sharp, but it sometimes feels like he's smirking at the camera.

Felicity Jones plays Finkel's wife, whom he uses as a financial and emotional reservoir to sponge off of. In lesser hands this sort of role turns into a thankless, dreary distraction -- and these filmmakers' hands are lesser.

There are the bones of a good story in "True Story," but the movie is content to take us to places we've already been to before. For instance, it never satisfactorily answers the question behind the main premise: why did Longo impersonate Finkel? 

The only thing more disappointing than sloppy storytelling is the lazy kind.

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