Fair and Balance: Hill and Franco sell absorbing "True Story" with conviction

True Story (2015)
100 min., rated R.

Jonah Hill and James Franco probably have a mistaken identity comedy in them, but rather, "True Story" is an investigative true-crime docudrama that exposes unethical journalism and the notion of finding the truth. Based on the mea culpa memoir of ex-New York Times journalist Michael Finkel, the film has a fascinating story to tell and, by design, blurs the line between fact and fiction, truth and lies. Like any stranger-than-fiction piece, this one weaves an unusual story that is worth telling but would be unbelievable were it not true. Beyond being "based on a true story"five words that don't automatically point to an interesting, worthwhile motion picture"True Story" provokes thought about primal human nature and the mysteries of why we try to give others the benefit of the doubt, based on face value. The smartest and less gullible viewer will be way ahead of where this is all going, but the suspense is in the "when" and "how" rather than the "what." 

In 2002, respected New York Times journalist Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) is fired from the staff for fabricating a composite character for the paper's Sunday magazine cover story on the African slave trade. Accepting his disgrace, he moves back to Montana with his wife, Jill (Felicity Jones), and hopes that another job will come along after making a few calls. Meanwhile, Oregon native Christian Longo (James Franco) is arrested in Cancun for suspicion of killing his wife (Maria Dizzia) and three young children and fleeing the States, but the name he gives is "Mike Finkel," the same Mike Finkel of the New York Times. When the real Finkel gets wind of this, he's less than worried about identity theft because Christian's story could mean a scoop that could save his reputation and career. Visiting Christian in prison, Finkel's interaction with the alleged murderer doesn't go as planned. The two men both need each other and come to a deal: if Longo tells him the truth at some point, Finkel will have to delay publication of his book until after the trial and then teach Longo how to write. Christian might just get Mike to believe him that he's been wrongfully accused, or is the alleged killer actually innocent?

"True Story" is compelling stuff, solidly told and taking the viewer along with Mike Finkel as he may or may not be manipulated by the man who used his name. Making his shift from stage theater and TV to film, debuting director Rupert Goold, who wrote the screenplay with David Kajganich, makes it clear that he trusts the facts and implications of the story he's telling. Goold shoots the film with a fine restraint, never coming off dull or dry in the two-hander and courtroom scenes and never going over the line into exploitative sensationalism for a story about a grisly crime. The opening shot is certainly an arresting one, as the camera rests on a teddy bear falling from the ceiling of a room, falling slowly but soon revealing a pajama-clad young girl in a suitcase where the stuffed animal eventually lands. Next, the suitcase is zipped and we hear the audio of that suitcase being thrown into the water, and finally, an autopsy reveals the aftermath of a horrific crime.

When one thinks of Jonah Hill, many don't jump right to his subtle, layered work in 2010's "Cyrus" or 2011's "Moneyball," but to the raucous stoner comedies that he made his name on. Understated but never self-consciously so, Jonah Hill gives his most dramatic work here as Mike Finkel, rising to the occasion and nailing the desperation and opportunistic nature of a journalist. Given the actor's innate likability, this must be a softened portrayal of the real Finkel, but it's still an impressive piece of acting from Hill. Always committed to his craft, James Franco already has a slipperiness about him that proves he's convincingly cast as Christian Logo. He's quite effective and not showy as expected, selling Logo's capability of manipulating anyone with his exhausted eyes and fleeting smirk, to the point that both the viewer and Finkel start to empathize with him. Logo remains a mystery and that's the point; an example of his enigmatic character comes early when he says to Finkel, "Sometimes the truth is believable. But that doesn't mean it's not true." Whether or not one can separate Franco from the real person of one Christian Logo will be up to the viewer entirely. This is the actor who donned cornrows and a grill, completely losing himself in his inspired, transformative performance in 2013's "Spring Breakers." Apart from Hill and Franco being such familiar screen company, it's not hard to believe Finkel and Logo as composites of the same person. Forced to have the two male leads have their day, Felicity Jones (minus her English accent) is underused for most of the film, looking worried and suffering inside, until she captivates in one juicy, clap-worthy, if contrived, scene where Jill visits Christian and puts him in his place.

Pulling through as an effective journalistic mystery told and acted with conviction, "True Story" isn't above running into a few snags. The editing is sometimes rushed; Finkel having a soon-to-be-published manuscript on his desk seems to come way too fast, and the timeline of Finkel's flights back and forth to Oregon and Montana get a little murky. More problematic than those quibbles, we can't even begin to understand the relationship between Mike Finkel and wife Jill, or why he lives in New York and she in Montana. Perhaps Rupert Goold was giving his audience too much credit, but even one line of dialogue could have made sense of this. Though one could say a long-distance marriage was the problem, there is little background to gauge why their marriage seems so rocky, too; it just is. Jill, herself, is also barely written and next to nothing is learned about her outside of her working in a library and jogging as her choice of exercise. However, the lynchpin of the entire film, of course, is Finkel's co-dependent dynamic with Longo, his spiritual soul mate, and that's where "True Story" plays like an unequivocally absorbing page-turner on the screen. As a film, it's an unexceptional example of what the cinematic form can really do, but as a story, it's a riveting case that holds enough water to sustain interest.