Director: Rupert Gold
Stars: Jonah Hill, James Franco
2 (out of 5) Globes
“True Story” ends with a pre-credits note that its real life protagonists — disgraced journo Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) and convicted murderer Christian Longo (James Franco) — still talk every week, despite the grueling mental tete-a-tete that made up the film. It gives you a hint of why they do that, but not an intellectually satisfying one. Indeed if the answer satisfies anyone it’s the makers, whose film has the illusion of quiet intelligence, and not just thanks to the stunt of having two Apatow kids playing straight-faced together for a change. It’s from the way its plot keeps twisting and turning, forcing us to repeatedly reappraise our assumptions. But it’s all building to something tidy, compact and reductive — a mystery it wants us to think it hasn’t solved, when in fact it hasn’t.
Hill’s Finkel is a hot shot New York Times reporter introduced being busted for creating composite characters in a piece on the African slave trade. Unable to score a second chance — he goes unmentioned in Jon Ronson’s new “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” as he at least escaped that level of blowback — he gloms onto Longo, who was once on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and busted while he was, as it were, pretending to be Finkel. When the two meet face-to-face, Longo calmly tells him he didn’t commit the murders that put him behind bars. Thing is, Finkel believes him.
Of course, it’s not a mere stunt that Hill and Franco are playing serious. Hill so far (as in over two serious roles) tends to interpret dramatic acting as playing quiet and shy, and though he largely communicates through whispered line readings and rarely shutting his jaw, the approach brings an opacity to a character we shouldn’t be able to get a read on. That goes exponentially more for Longo, played with a clipped stillness that ping pongs between on-the-level decency and full-on creepiness, all without Franco changing up a thing.
Their meetings are riots of minimalist acting, speaking volumes with very little at all. But it’s pretty clear what “True Story” is getting at, and these scenes are more useful as acting exercises than as portraits of inscrutable mystery. The gyst is that these two need each other — that Finkel, even if he’s only a one-time breaker of journalistic ethics, is generally in over his head when it comes to any reportage. The true story itself is almost assuredly more complex — and was already documented by Finkel in a book with the same title — but even if it weren’t “True Story” would still feel pat and thin, swelling up like a balloon in its middle section before shrinking to a nub by its end. It wants to haunt you with the chill of the unknowable, but it leaves you feeling like you’ve got it. You’re better off wondering why Felicity Jones, as Finkel’s mostly support system gal pal, agreed to ditch her euphonious English accent for a dull Yank one.