[Screen It]


(2015) (Jonah Hill, James Franco) (R)

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Drama: A disgraced New York Times journalist hopes for career redemption while writing a book about a man who's been accused of killing his wife and three young children.
Michael Finkel (JONAH HILL) is an acclaimed New York Times journalist who's just published a scathing article about modern day slavery in Africa. Unfortunately, it's soon revealed that he manipulated people and details in the story and, as a result, is subsequently fired. Retreating to his Montana home, Michael suddenly can't land any writing assignments, something that worries his wife, Jill (FELICITY JONES), just as much as his continued emotional distance from her.

When Michael hears that a suspected killer, Christian Longo (JAMES FRANCO), was using his identity while on the run in Mexico, the disgraced writer sees an opportunity for potential redemption and resurrection of his career. When he meets Christian, he finds him to be a calm and friendly man, unlike the sort who could allegedly kill his wife and three young children.

In exchange for teaching him how to write better and not publish the story until after his trial, Christian agrees to let Michael interview him for a story. As their relationship expands, Michael eventually realizes the material would be better suited as a novel, all while the question remains about whether Christian committed all or some of the crimes, or if he's manipulating the writer and the court system along the way.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
Like my wife a few years ago, I recently discovered that I'm a recent victim of identity theft, specifically in terms of some idjit (or, more likely, a computer program) who tried to file tax returns in my name.

It's a royal pain in the tuckus, not only in terms of messing up the filing of one's legitimate returns, but also in regards to all of the other forms, paperwork and such that have to be filled out, submitted and so on.

Even so, in the realm of identity theft, it's probably one of the more benign forms. At least I didn't end up having a man who killed his entire family pretending to be me. While that might sound far-fetched, it's what occurred to New York Times journalist Michael Finkel. Or at least that's what he proclaimed in his 2005 work, "True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa."

That account of his involvement with Christian Longo -- who used Finkel's alias while on the lam in Mexico after murdering his wife and their three children -- now arrives on the big screen in the form of "True Story" (interestingly enough, there's no "based on a true story" disclaimer as the film begins).

With Jonah Hill and James Franco playing the leads (as the journalist and murderer respectively), one might understandably assume this to be some sort of outrageous and decidedly R-rated stoner comedy, perhaps with Seth Rogen showing up to play some form of non-traditional lawyer.

Thankfully, screenwriter David Kajganich and director Rupert Goold have gone the straight drama route, with only a smattering of comic relief moments thrown in. The result is an okay if underwhelming 100 or so minutes where the only real question and related drama is whether the accused is guilty or not.

All of which is too bad considering the built-in potential. While I haven't read the source material or looked up any news on the actual crime, the plot contains two unreliable characters.

The first, of course, is the suspect who may or may not have done the homicidal deed, and may or may not be manipulating his interviewer or others. That's certainly nothing new to the world of cinematic storytelling, but Franco does a good job keeping the viewer unsure of his guilt.

The other is Frankel who gets canned early in the film after it's discovered he manipulated the facts in a story about modern day slavery in Africa. Alas, it's never satisfactorily explained or explored why he did that (especially after years of what otherwise seemed like exemplary and award-winning work).

But that storytelling omission could have actually worked to the film's advantage in making the viewer uneasy about rooting for his success. After all, if you can't fully get behind the protagonist, the next best thing is to make him an unreliable narrator, mainly to up the ante in regards to keeping things interesting.

Sadly, the filmmakers didn't go that route and thus Hill is stuck playing the character as a man looking for redemption and career resurrection. What's then left is just the two men interacting during interviews in jail, all while Felicity Jones plays Finkel's wife who looks on with concern at her hubby's growing preoccupation with the suspect and his case (thankfully, the talented actress gets one scene to let loose and she does so with utmost aplomb).

But that's about it for the fireworks, with Goold having to resort to lots of close-ups of Hill and Franco's faces, hands and such in an effort to keep things interesting. In terms of unsure guilt (and the related payoff at the end), it's not as much fun as what occurred in "Primal Fear" all those years ago.

And considering the plethora of interview scenes between the interviewer and suspect, it pales considerably to one of the best examples of that, "The Silence of the Lambs" (where viewers were literally on the edge of their seats never knowing what might be said or done in any given moment).

Here, all of that plays out in a straightforward fashion sans any noteworthy or momentum building suspension. Had Hill's character been portrayed as untrustworthy and nebulous in motivation, we might have had something to sink our teeth into. Without that, the overall film comes off feeling like it's trying to steal the identity of better past efforts, but without complete success. "True Story" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 13, 2014 / Posted April 17, 2014

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