Review: When Felicity Jones is the best part of ‘True Story’ we’ve got problems

25 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »


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). 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). After watching her husband be manipulated from afar, Jill Finkel (played marvelously by Felicity Jones), goes to meet accused murderer Christian Longo (James Franco) at the county jail where he’s incarcerated. In less than five minutes Jill uses the tale of 16th century composer Carlo Gesualdo, who murdered his wife and baby in cold blood, to unmask Longo as the killer she knows he is and to make it clear his charade will only get so far as long as she’s around. 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. It’s a moment that demonstrates how talented the current Oscar nominee for Best Actress is in what has been a thankless role up until his point in the film. 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. Disgraced and unable to find work, Finkel gets a random call from an Oregon newspaper reporter who informs him that Longo had used Finkel’s name as an alias while on the run in Mexico. 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. 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. Longo, who admits to being a huge fan of Finkel’s writing, agrees and the duo begin regular meetings where the reporter agrees to teach the inmate how to become a better writer if he tells him the true story of what really happened to his family. 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. 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. The film insinuates that Longo provides some details for Finkel’s eventual memoir “True Story,” but doesn’t do a good job of conveying why they fascinate each other.

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. There is a stark moment during Longo’s testimony during the trial where he uses a line that Finkel had said to him in confidence to help sell his story of innocence to the jury. 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.

It’s not an alibi, it’s not some justification for his actions, but Goold plays it as some sort of epic betrayal and perhaps that’s the biggest problem with “True Story” after all. 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. While Longo’s actions were horrifying and his connection to Finkel is unique, Goold somehow can’t make this material as interesting as you’d expect it to be. 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.

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. Hill isn’t responsible for the film’s repetitive scenes focusing on this beat, but he isn’t able to make us feel any sympathy for Finkel’s personal plight. Goold’s directorial debut is assisted by some fine camerawork by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“Out of the Furnace”) and stylish production designer Jeremy Bindle (“Zero Dark Thirty”). 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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