Jonah Hill And James Franco Shine But "True Story" Is Still A Dull Story

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True Story opens in limited release on 4/17/15.

Whenever I hear the phrase “based on a true story,” I often wonder, “Which part?” Take “Titanic” for example. I know the boat is going to sink. I wonder if there was a romance between the characters played by Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio or if that was contrived to distract the audience from the inevitable disaster that nearly everyone on Earth knew was coming in that film. I suppose if Hollywood didn’t spice it up they’d be making documentaries, not blockbusters.

“True Story” is no exception. Based on…drum roll...a true story, the film follows former NY Times writer Michael Finkel whose life takes an unexpected turn when a suspected murderer in Oregon, Christian Longo uses his name when the police catch up to him in Mexico. The two form an unlikely partnership, perhaps even a friendship, as Finkel works with Longo to find enough to help get an acquittal at trial. Of course, since this is a true crime tale you could find out how that goes with a simple Google search.

Finkel and Longo are played by Jonah Hill and James Franco, respectively. I generally like Franco, and I thought he handled his role pretty well, dialing down his typical cool machismo for frostier, somewhat menacing, someone aloof character. That said, his composure during the trial didn’t fake out the audience any more than the real case did—a killer that shows no remorse, doesn’t cry, doesn’t flinch at graphic evidence is not likely going to win the sympathy of the jurors. As I watched the trial portion of the film, with no prior knowledge of the original case, I presumed the guilty verdict based on how I would have voted given the defendant’s performance. On the other hand, I usually don’t care for the comedy relief roles Hill frequently plays but found him much more appealing in this more serious role. He walked the line of journalistic skepticism and familiar trust well, which made the feelings of betrayal and shattered trust which Finkel must felt at the verdict and subsequent admissions by Longo all the more palpable.

Where I found myself scratching my head was with the amount of time given to Finkel’s wife Jill, played by Felicity Jones. Her part felt needlessly tacked on at times. Director Rupert Goold redirected our attention to her often enough to plant a Hitchcock-like seed of doubt in her, that she may be on the verge of doing something, but it never really pays off. Jones is fine in the part, but the part itself felt like an unnecessary distraction. You know, like a three hour whirlwind romance in the North Atlantic when you really just want to see the biggest cruise ship disaster in history play out on your local mega-screen.

I guess that’s what separates the documentaries from the feature films, the amount of liberties one can take with the audience. Personally, I don’t see why documentaries need be as dry as they so often are, nor why features with true stories like “True Story” need be as contrived as they so often are. In either case, if the subject is compelling enough, people will watch it. Jonah Hill and James Franco playing roles a bit outside of their usual territory was nice to see, and the film in and of itself isn't bad, but jdespite the strong performances of the leads "True Story" just feels a bit flat. Goold is an award-winning stage director, but perhaps wasn't the best choice for executive producer Brad Pitt to maximize the intensity of the story for the silver screen.. 

Grade: 
3.0 / 5.0