Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and disturbing content
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 4.17.15
Bad movies are irritating for all sorts of reasons. Many, easy to dismiss as talentless garbage, aren’t worth fretting about.
I get seriously annoyed, though, with the ones that show promise — particularly those with an intriguing premise, and an approach that hints at clever psychological complexity — and then fail to deliver. Utterly.
Those are infuriating, generating a level of hostility that sends viewers grumbling from the theater, wishing it were possible to reclaim those two hours of their lives.
True Story is just such a film.
At first blush, for viewers who approach it cold, the early scenes of director Rupert Goold’s big-screen debut evoke pleasant memories of 1996’s Primal Fear, with its twisty battle of wits between hotshot attorney Richard Gere and the altar boy (Edward Norton) accused to killing a respected Catholic priest.
But True Story isn’t fiction; Goold and co-scripter David Kajganich have based their film on the bizarre events actually experienced by disgraced New York Times journalist Michael Finkel, as recorded in his 2005 book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa. That shifts this big-screen adaptation into entirely different territory ... although, in the final analysis, the distinction is moot.
It would have been unsatisfying as a fictitious drama, and it’s equally tedious as a wannabe historical record.
I walked away with two strong impressions: 1) Finkel still wants absolution for past sins, and this film ain’t gonna bring him that satisfaction — frankly, nothing should — and 2) stars James Franco and Jonah Hill appear to have viewed this project as a means to establish some “serious actor” cred. They’re doomed to equal disappointment.
This movie’s a stiff: deadly dull, clumsily executed and ultimately maddening. The storyline sets up numerous issues that demand answers, none of them forthcoming. Setting aside any attempt by Goold to achieve artistic ambiguity, the reason for failure is obvious: We’re dealing with two liars. Once this becomes obvious, as the film concludes, we can’t help feeling conned.
Granted, one character may be a pathological liar, as opposed to the one who’s perhaps only an accidental liar — and I stress the “perhaps” — but the result is the same. We’re left in the hands of unreliable narrators: the death of engaging drama.
Goold opens his film with Finkel’s fall from grace, in February 2002, as he’s caught having compressed details to build a composite character in a story published in The New York Times Magazine. The act smacks of Janet Hill’s fabricated 1981 article in The Washington Post, which won her a Pulitzer Prize that she had to surrender. But the comparison isn’t entirely apt; unlike Cooke, Finkel has a long string of compelling feature stories for the Times, none of which are called into question after this scandal breaks.
His ethical lapse, then, appears to have been a one-time blunder. When pressed by his editorial higher-ups, Finkel has no answer to the obvious question of Why. Jonah Hill gives Finkel a credible blend of agitation, embarrassment, confusion and, OK, even possible bewilderment. Could be he simply doesn’t know, deep down, what drove him to such career suicide.
Taking refuge in the isolated Montana home that he shares with his wife, Jill (Felicity Jones), Finkel awaits the inevitable public crucifixion. But one of the first phone calls is a surprise: a cold enquiry from a reporter (Ethan Suplee) with The Oregonian, in Portland, who wants Finkel’s take on an entirely different situation.
One of the FBI’s most wanted killers, Christian Longo (Franco), has just been apprehended in Mexico. Longo is accused of murdering his wife and three children in Oregon; the bizarre detail is that, while in Mexico, he passed himself off as a New York Times reporter named Michael Finkel.
Understandably curious, Finkel arranges a meeting with Longo, wanting to know why the accused killer chose his identify, out of all possibilities.
Fairness demands that we acknowledge this undeniably fascinating hook ... and this much is, indeed, the way it occurred in real life.
What follows, though, begins to feel less like a complex head game — less like what really went down, during Finkel’s many, many subsequent visits with Longo — and more like a deliberately contrived and long-winded attempt to keep us guessing. Hill’s Finkel seems reasonably sincere, particularly as he grows convinced that Longo may be taking the blame for somebody else’s heinous act ... or is this merely another journalistic obsession on Finkel’s part? A “case” that he comes to believe that only he can solve, thereby returning himself to public esteem?
Franco, in turn, shifts between resigned, stubborn and wily. His gaze veers from lost and hopeless to seductively canny, as Longo reveals bits of information at a rate calculated to keep Finkel coming back for more.
That both men are far less than candid becomes quite obvious. Finkel clearly is using Longo for career resurrection; a book deal hits the table quite rapidly. By the same token, Longo also is manipulating Finkel, although the reasons are less obvious. What is this accused killer’s endgame?
This film’s script takes awhile to become insufferably oblique, but Goold’s directorial approach is off-putting from the start. The opening scene — a slow-motion, deliberately “arty” tableau of a little girl’s lifeless body — is unforgivably disgusting, as are details eventually revealed about the other murders. As various events unfold, I began to wonder who, in this story, deserved our sympathy. Bad enough that Finkel and Longo are such flawed characters, but it’s ironic that we also wind up loathing the filmmakers.
Even Jones, as the steadfastly devoted Jill, is hard to credit. This certainly isn’t the actress’ fault; she delivers a solid performance as an intelligent, perceptive and capable woman. Jill’s eventual meeting with Longo, late in the third act, is a knockout scene for Jones.
But it’s simply ridiculous, given Finkel’s ethical transgression early on, that Jill is so blandly tolerant of her husband’s subsequent behavior. Her protracted silence makes her seem blind and stupid, despite the fact that she’s clearly neither. Here, again, we see unmistakable evidence of a puppeteer’s contrived control: a character who behaves this way not because it’s reasonable, but solely because it gets us from one scene to the next.
Speaking of contrived, a fairly late scene with Jill, alone in her house and unexpectedly victimized by a phone call from Longo, teases us with a hint of mainstream thriller territory: Will Longo somehow break out of prison and come after her? Nonsense. This is nothing but a cinematic cheat: a director deliberately goosing us with horror-movie clichés.
Other, minor, supporting players are more persuasive. Suplee feels legit as a fellow reporter who begins to question Finkel’s mounting interest in Longo; Robert John Burke is smoothly convincing as an investigator who hopes to persuade Finkel to share the details of his conversations with the accused killer.
Their solid work aside, Franco and Hill are undone by their own “movie star” status. We can buy either of them separately in serious roles, and need look no further than 127 Hours (Franco) and Moneyball (Hill). But the two of them together feels like a reunion of the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen repertoire company; at times, despite the gravity of this film’s subject manner, I kept expecting Franco and Hill to bust up during one of their oh-so-serious prison chats.
On top of which, ultimately, this film attempts the impossible. Hill’s sympathetic portrayal of Finkel notwithstanding, moral salvation isn’t forthcoming; actual evidence strongly suggests that — at the time — the guy was smug and arrogant, grew flush with his own success, felt he could get away with a lie, and then, only because he got caught, retreated to the insincere mea culpas of a kid photographed with his hand in the cookie jar.
Which, yes, invites intriguing comparisons to the bent moral compass Finkel apparently shares with Longo, particularly since, in real life, the two men apparently became — and remain — friends (a term that’s difficult to employ, absent raised-eyebrow skepticism).
I can’t imagine anybody being satisfied by this film; I can’t even figure out what Franco, Hill and Goold hoped to accomplish. The actual Finkel’s goal, on the other hand, seems unchanged: More than a decade later, he still expects forgiveness.
He sure as hell won’t get it here...