True Story (2015)

14 Mar

JonahHillJamesFrancoTrueStory1

Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“True Story” couldn’t be more aptly titled. When one hears another tell a story about something, especially when that something is a serious crime, it’s hard to tell if the person telling the story is telling the exact truth or an exaggeration of the truth (if not lying entirely) and even harder for the listener to know what to believe, especially when there is no second side to the story, or at least no one to hear it from. In this film, journalist Mike Finkel was booted off the New York Times for fudging some facts of an important story he wrote for them, after he had defended himself by saying he got enough important details from the experience (but with no notes to back it up). His attempt to redeem himself comes when convicted killer Christian Longo steals Finkel’s identity and Finkel, oddly flattered by the fact that someone knew of him, decides to visit him from time to time to know more about him and get his true side of the story behind his crime of murdering his wife and children. Finkel plans to write about his meetings with Longo for a book, titled “True Story.” But the more Finkel learns about Longo and about the crime, the more he questions what’s true, what’s fabricated, and what’s exaggerated. What is truth? What are lies? What is manipulation? Is the title “True Story” accurate or ironic? You can wonder if the story within the film is true even of itself. (Surely, some liberties were taken, of course.)

“True Story,” based on the actual Michael Finkel’s 2005 book of the same name, is less of a crime story and more of a drama about the codependent relationship/twisted friendship between Christian Longo (convicted killer) and Mike Finkel (his biographer), each of whom begin their relationship with an agenda, though it’s unclear whether they’ve achieved it or not. That’s one of the things that makes the film all the more fascinating, on top of the efficiently understated performances by the actors playing the parts: James Franco as Longo and Jonah Hill as Finkel. Both these actors are known for comedic roles, but their low-key approaches to these serious roles suit them rather well. Hill is believable as a writer who’s sure about his brilliance in his craft, which makes it even more believable when he feels he’s been duped. And Franco delivers one of his very best performances in an unsettling turn as a master manipulator who is so sure of himself as someone who may be able to win over a jury with his charm at a murder trial.

Also very good in this film is Felicity Jones as Finkel’s girlfriend, Jill, who stands by her man when things are tough and mostly stays out of things until a crucial moment late in the film when she meets Longo for herself and decides to tell him a thing or two. I normally grow tired of the cliché in which a secondary character stays quiet for a majority of the film until late in the game when he or she finally says something of significant importance, but when it works, it really works. And that is certainly the case here—Jones nails this scene and her dialogue is choice.

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But this also brings up a problem I have with “True Story”: the script. It may sound odd to you, but I think the script “True Story” is too good. It’s a weird criticism, I know, but a good deal of the dialogue sounds too carefully written. Take this introductory exchange between Longo and Jill when they first meet: she tells him, “I thought you’d be taller.” “Why?” “I don’t know. Maybe because [Mike] looks up to you.” Something about that sounds rehearsed, like it’s part of a play, and her story she tells to Longo, as tough as it sounds, still sounds staged.

But wait…she’s telling a story to get something important across to Longo, much like how Longo has been telling stories to get points across to Finkel and the trial jury. So…isn’t that kind of the point and I’m contradicting myself with this criticism?

Well, another problem with the script is that it can be a little heavy-handed, with obvious statements to make, sometimes repeatedly. And the scene I praised before probably wouldn’t plausible without Longo getting some chance to defend myself, no matter how hard Jill’s words may hit home for him.

Maybe I’m a little unfair with that criticism, because the overall film is very powerful and a solid drama with respectable performances and neat direction by Rupert Gould. It’s an interesting portrait about biography, human conduct, and how it’s not always easy to get what you want no matter how high the stakes are raised. Especially in the aftermath of a heinous crime.

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