Jonah Hill’s character study flick goes off the rails

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

True Story
Opens April 17
2 out of 5

Jonah Hill has dramatic chops. We’ve seen them. His forays outside Seth Rogen’s brand of comedy have been mostly successful (Moneyball, The Wolf of Wall Street) and he has two Oscar nominations to prove it.

However, Hill’s most rewarded performances are supporting roles and have a marked comedic vein. Asking him to carry a levity-free drama the perennially unconvincing James Franco is a bridge too far for the audience to cross. Doesn’t help the last time audiences saw them together was in the meta-comedy This Is the End as themselves.

That’s just one of the problems with True Story, a poorly structured film with identity issues. Hill is Michael Finkel, a hotshot New York Times reporter who is not beyond fudging the facts for impact. His illustrious career comes to an abrupt end when those pesky fact-checkers catch up with him.

Down in the dumps, Finkel finds out notorious jailbird and former Starbucks barista Christian Longo (James Franco) used his name while on the lam. Longo is accused of murdering his family in cold blood and has yet to speak to the media. Curious about the alleged murderer’s interest in him and hoping to redeem himself by telling his story, Finkel approaches Longo.

The two men become fast friends and soon agree to write a book together. Yet the matter of Longo’s innocence looms large over their relationship, and the possibility of Finkel being played begins to takes shape. The journalist has a blind spot, his vanity, and a sociopath could spot it a mile away.

Based on real events, True Story is a mess of a movie. While the characters are properly built and Hill and Franco do their darnedest to make them believable (to varying degrees of success), the point is never clear. Is True Story journey into the darkness of the soul? A procedural? A thriller? It’s not satisfying as any.

The blame falls squarely on screenwriter/director Rupert Goold who fails to turn the rather engrossing material into a compelling narrative. The writing is broad, bordering on trite (the phrase “she was like the ocean” is actually uttered). The mechanics of the manipulation — which the story hinges on — aren’t clear. In fact we don’t even know WHY there needs to be manipulation.

As is common with films about print journalists, the depiction of their work is way off base (it’s not that hard, just rent All the President’s Men). With the exception of those working at Cosmopolitan or teenybopper publications, no serious journalist has done one-word associations since the ’80s.

The only one to rise above the material and come out unscathed is Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything). As Finkel’s wife, Jones is the moral center of the piece and plays her part without affectation, as opposed to quirk-loving James Franco.

True Story probably won’t hurt anybody’s career, but it serves as a warning: want to stretch your wings? Make sure the script gives you enough lift for take-off.