Quick Quote: Why UK director Rupert Goold cast Jonah Hill

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

FILM REVIEW: ‘TRUE STORY’.

Truth is strange, but hardly any more interesting than fiction in “True Story,” a perplexingly serious new collaboration for James Franco and Jonah Hill.‘True Story’ executive producer Brad Pitt, left, and star James Franco, at the film’s premiere during the Sundance Film Festival Friday, Jan. 23.

The slow-burning, pretentious and mostly insufferable Fox Searchlight drama “True Story” reeks of a film made for Oscars that simply isn’t good enough to make much of an impression (it’s due in theaters April 10, not exactly the thick of awards season).“” feels especially well-timed in its release, due to its grappling with the kinds of issues that were collectively struggled with last fall in the form of the Serial podcast and Rolling Stone magazine’s UVA debacle, such as questions of who to believe, what constitutes the truth, and how to present the facts of a horrifying situation.

In Franco’s case, this macabre project plays right into the label-defying star’s ongoing exploration of slippery identities (here he plays a sociopath beyond redemption). PARK CITY – James Franco says as an actor, he always tries to empathize with the characters he plays, but in the new film “True Story,” he hated his character. “True Story” explores the relationship between convicted wife and child-killer Christian Longo, and former New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (played by Jonah Hill). These ideas drive “True Story,” and the result is a chilling film that despite its craft and best efforts, still struggles to overcome its star power. Unlike 2004’s respected yet low-earning “Shattered Glass,” this unconventional two-hander is less preoccupied with the undoing of a respected journo than with the odd bond that Finkel (Hill) went on to forge with convicted child killer Christian Longo (an appropriately icy Franco).

He’s so detached from himself.” The film has lots of close-ups of Franco and Hill, who previously collaborated on comedies such as “This Is the End.” Here, their scenes together are menacing and tense, but there are moments of unexpected connection. “James and Jonah bring strong warmth,” director Rupert Goold said, highlighting the energy they brought to the film’s centerpiece scenes in which Finkel and Longo face each other across a table in a stark white prison as the journalist agrees to listen to the murder suspect’s side of the story. After finding nothing but slammed doors as he looks for new work, he learns that Christian Longo (James Franco), an accused killer on the lam in Mexico, has assumed his identity. Producers Brad Pitt, DeDe Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner of Plan B appeared at the Sundance premiere to support the film, and Pitt slapped Franco warmly on the chest when the actor was introduced. (Hill was unable to attend). The hook for the story is that Longo, when finally arrested and even before that, told people he was Finkel: He had taken a liking to the journalist’s work, which he knew very well.

Embracing the dramatic liberties of adaptation, the accessibly structured screenplay constantly bends details for effect while holding true to the psychological core of its source. Both sometimes ride in cars!) as he builds to a climactic court scene that is riveting as it plays out but turns out to have no influence on anything. Finkel is intrigued by the attention (and the possible scoop), and strikes up a jailhouse friendship with Longo, swapping writing lessons for questions about the ghastly crime. Instead of getting angry at the impersonation, the real Finkel decides to cozy up to this chronic liar, hoping, as he puts it, “Maybe you could tell me what it’s like to be me.” So begins one of indie cinema’s more peculiar friendships, complicated by the fact that the two leads are longtime amigos in real life. Despite Finkel claims that he’s too battle weary to ever veer from the truth again, their meeting room scenes serve as a stage to expound on the elastic nature of truth.

He is drawn in further and further, enticed by Longo’s fawning and the prospect of massive book sales, becoming close with a man who is accused of a truly heinous crime, as he is reminded, to no avail, by girlfriend Jill and prosecutors who want access to his notes and correspondence. Here’s where it’s important to point out that True Story is a true story, so watching the reporting that goes into writing the book True Story is a something of a truth-seeking ouroboros.

The difficulty in speaking declaratively about others’ intentions is made evident in the scene where Longo surprises everyone by pleading guilty to some of the charges, thus rendering the sample chapters Finkel sent in for his book proposal potentially moot. There is nothing warm about the film’s style, yet it still allows for moments of simmering tension, broken by a few emotional explosions that shatter its well-composed surface. But in due course, we come to recognize that Hill and Franco are giving fully earnest, no-nonsense performances, albeit in roles that allow them far less creative latitude than, say, “Moneyball” and “Spring Breakers.” In Goold’s hands, the two thesps deliver measured, soul-searching work.

The film leaves out the remark from Longo’s lawyer (who had every reason to fear that his client might let some damning remark slip in his interviews with Finkel) that he permitted the meetings to continue since Longo had no other friends in prison. Such is the fate of an accused child murderer — an undeniably heavy burden for Franco to play, and one can practically sense that darkness gnawing at the typically animated actor’s psyche. No one in the film is particularly likeable, and while the global implications about epistemology are interesting, the specifics of this particular case, at least rendered here, are quite dull. Felicity Jones is an MVP as usual, elevating the material in what is sadly a fairly limited role, despite one scene in which she single-handedly raises every hair on your body. Hill, on the other hand, comes across as more likable than his real-life counterpart, who was publicly pilloried for fudging the central profile in his expose on allegations of child slavery in the African chocolate trade.

I’m completely on board with Franco-as-clown in movies like The Interview or Oz the Great and Powerful, but I’m basically ready to throw in the towel when it comes to dramatic roles. There’s no real effort made to prove Finkel’s talents as a writer, or his loving relationship with Jill, or Longo’s role as a devoted father (though that probably is just one of his deceptions). Masanobu Takayanagi, Goold frequently shoots the two characters in closeup, speculating on the delusions masked by Longo’s impenetrable brown eyes, while watching Finkel’s conscience squirm behind Hill’s tortoiseshell frames. Editors Christopher Tellefsen and Nicolas de Toth seem equally keen on other subtle bits of body language, weaving in glimpses of fidgeting hands, nervous postures and, most devilishly, a damning wink. The truly interesting thing about “True Story” is the gradual shift and realization of Finkel that he can’t just write truth into existence, despite his talent and hard work.

Less effective are the clumsy flashbacks to the crimes themselves, arising at illogical moments as painful reminders of the innocent victims’ young age. A massively respected British theater director making his bigscreen debut, Goold opts for an iconic, somewhat larger-than-life look for the film, centering the action around such archetypal locations as the writer’s Montana cottage and the prison’s stark white visitation room, then stripping away any peripheral characters or details that might distract. It’s an assured, impressive first effort, given added heft from Marco Beltrami’s near-constant yet non-invasive score — the sort of elegant, slightly melancholy accompaniment most often associated with Carter Burwell, beautifully rendered in pianos and strings. If anything, the music invites a depth of introspection upon which the screenplay can’t quite deliver. “True Story” teases us along with promises that Finkel will get to the bottom of Longo’s case.

At one point, the earnest reporter is the only one willing to believe that he might be innocent, a possibility borne out by Longo’s intense, tough-to-watch testimony in his own case. But it also reveals the man to be a master manipulator, even going so far as to pry into Finkel’s relationship with his g.f. (Felicity Jones), whose otherwise distracting presence pays off when she finally decides to visit Longo in prison. It was a weird little tale to begin with, and over the course of its nearly eight-year development, the filmmakers managed to streamline and embellish the source material until it worked dramatically.

While never as gripping as a good piece of fiction, Goold’s treatment actually manages to improve on the book, even if that meant fabricating a few things along the way.

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