It’s always great to see James Franco give a shit. Don’t get me wrong, the guy’s got talent. 127 Hours proved that a long time ago. No, it’s just that for every shining moment Franco has, there’s always a subpar performance in a film that lacks the merit of giving a great performance in the first place. Plain and simple, the guy phones it in.
Such is not the case with True Story, which sees Franco paired with his buddy Jonah Hill. Sounds like the making of a great comedy right? Brought to you by the guys who starred in This is the End. Well, if it’s those guys you’re looking for you’ll be disappointed. This stars two-time Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill and one-time Academy Award nominee James Franco. That’s right, this is a serious film.
The film centers around two men: Mike Finkel and Christian Longo. The story opens with Longo in Germany flirting with a woman. We see him get arrested. End scene. Next we meet Finkel, a reporter for the New York Times who boasts to his wife about how many times he’s made the cover of the magazine. Finkel has just gotten back from an assignment in Africa and is seen getting fired for fabricating the details of the story. He retreats back to his home in Minnesota, a very Fargoesqu Minnesota, covered in snow. As he desperately tries to find a new job, Finkel gets a call from a reporter, who tells him there’s a man on trial for murder who was using Finkel’s name. Mystery ensues.
The meat of the film revolves around Finkel’s and Longo’s interactions. Finkel, seeing an opportunity for a story and redemption, visits Longo in jail. Longo admits he used Finkel’s name because he admires his work. Finkel is flattered. The two strike up a deal: Longo will give his story on the condition that Finkel teach him to write. They both shake hands.
I knew nothing going into this film–a rarity for a guy who reads every review–aside from a brief trailer I saw. And I gotta admit, I was expecting this film to suck. But much to my surprise, it really didn’t until the wee end. In fact, it was kinda good. A little uncertain of what it wants to be, but enjoyable none the less.
The film takes an obvious cue from Capote. The protagonists of both films are pudgy and wear glasses. They center around a small deserted town where the horizon stretches for miles. They involve the investigation of cold blooded murders. Both explore how the attempt to empathize with a killer leads one to lose their soul.
However, that comparison gives too much credit to True Story. Capote was clear in how it viewed it’s protagonist. He was a brilliant writer capitalizing on the brutal murders by two men. What he gained in fame he lost in dignity. We knew what we were supposed to think about him. I’m not sure the director and co-screenwriter, Rupert Goold, have such a firm grasp on what their character is meant to be. He’s first shed in a more sympathetic light–a guy out of job and desolated in hell of snow. Then when he meets Longo he genuinely seems to care about the man and even convinces himself that the man might be innocent. By the end Finkel is portrayed as a dupe.
I’m not sure what I’m supposed to think about Finkel. The end credits seem to confirm that Finkel was a dupe, but why go to lengths to show him as a caring guy? The misguided ending hammers home this depiction, but to what ends?
Still, the film has a lot of joy. It’s got a firm grasp on it tones. The actors give it their all (a brilliant casting by the way). And I was genuinely immersed in where the story was going. It’s clear Finkel is guilty, but what drives the story is how Finkel gets himself wrapped up the guy’s bullshit.
You’ve got to admire a film that creates the right tone and atmosphere. It may not be perfect, but it’s still worth a go. Plus, it’s always great to see Franco give a shit.