Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language and some Disturbing Material
Directed by: Rupert Goold
Written by: David Kajganich
(based on a memoir by Michael Finkel)
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Connor Kikot, Gretchen Mol & John Sharian
Jonah Hill and James Franco star in a movie that isn’t a comedy? I know. I was skeptical too, but that skepticism quickly washed away when TRUE STORY revealed what a heavy, depressing true crime drama it truly was. This is the most uncomfortable movie that I’ve seen in a while and though it has its fair share of problems, there are too many good qualities that I can’t not recommend it (that was a double-negative and those come into play during certain lines of the dialogue in this film). Before walking into the movie theater, I had never heard of Mike Finkel and vaguely knew of Christian Longo. Having now seen this film, I don’t think I’m going to forget either of these people any time soon.
Mike Finkel, a reporter for the New York Times, recently falsified a big article about slavery in Africa and has found himself out of a job as a result. Christian Longo killed his entire family and wound up on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list as a result. It’s almost as if fate comes knocking when Finkel hears that Longo was arrested in Mexico using Finkel’s identity. Intrigued as to why an alleged murderer would be pretending to be a small time journalist, Finkel goes to meet Longo and the two begin to correspond. Finkel is granted exclusive rights to tell Longo’s side of the story…if he teaches Longo how to write. As Longo’s trial draws nearer, Finkel finds himself in morally questionable waters. By the conclusion of the trial, both men will be changed…and not necessarily for the better.
I will address my problems with TRUE STORY before going into why I wound up liking this film. The movie takes a while to get going. The pacing in the first half drags noticeably and I could easily understand somebody finding the whole movie boring as a result of this. It certainly doesn’t help that we get too many shots of people looking pensively off into the distance for no reason other than to make the film seem more dramatic. Jonah Hill is slightly miscast as Finkel. He has his moments (especially near the end), but Hill occasionally doesn’t come off as natural as he probably wanted to be. It feels like he’s forcing himself to be in serious role, but wasn’t necessarily prepared for it. Of course, this might have also been hindered by the fact that Finkel seems like scum-sucking douchebag who wants a quick shot at fame again. The tone of the film is uncomfortable and that’s very appropriate given the icky subject matter. This is all treated with respect as the movie never explicitly shows Longo’s crimes, but rather alludes to them in disturbingly subtle scenes.
With all these complaints, you are probably wondering why I consider TRUE STORY to be a good film. Well, there are a number of big reasons. Jonah Hill seems slightly miscast as Finkel, but James Franco is an absolutely perfect fit as Longo. He inhabits his role of this manipulative monster with skill and precision. We can see the exact moments where he gets inside Finkel’s head and proceeds to play with everyone around him. Felicity Jones is mostly underused as Finkel’s wife, who’s reasonably concerned about her husband’s new story, but has a couple of stand-out scenes. While the first half of the film drags and might be far too slow for some, the second half picks up fantastically. The final minutes of this movie are incredibly powerful and have a lot of commentary about what stories society chooses to focus on. Specific scenes from the final third of this film have been replaying themselves in my mind over and over again since I left the theater.
TRUE STORY is far from great due to poor pacing in the first half, Finkel being an unlikable lead and Jonah Hill being miscast. However, it more than makes up for those flaws in Franco’s performance, an icky feeling of unease that’s present throughout the entire film and a fantastic second half. Near the conclusion, Longo tells Finkel that he’ll forever be remembered as “that guy who talked to that guy who murdered his family.” This movie does nothing to dissuade from Longo’s point. In fact, it proves that comment true without a doubt! TRUE STORY is a dark, compelling drama (with some flaws) that leaves the viewer with a lot to mentally chew on long after the end credits have rolled. This one comes recommended to true-crime buffs.