‘True Story’ Review: James Franco and Jonah Hill Get Serious (But Not Very Interesting)
In my more self-indulgent moments, I Google myself. When I do, I discover all the other Matt Singers in the world. There’s a folk singer Matt Singer, a fashion designer Matt Singer, a liberal blogger Matt Singer, and a former Canadian professional football player for the Manitoba Bisons Matt Singer. Though I’ve never met any of these men, their mere existence infuriates me. Who the hell are these jerks trying to use my name? How can they be Matt Singer? I’m Matt Singer. And while I hate to admit it, these men have a legitimate claim to my name; they were born with it just like I was. Imagine how it must feel to find someone has actually stolen your name and used it for their own nefarious purposes. The best moments of the new movie True Story are about the terror of identity theft, and how when our names are taken our very sense of self gets taken with it.
Jonah Hill plays Michael Finkel, a disgraced journalist fired from The New York Times Magazine after it’s discovered he fabricated part of a cover story about the working conditions at African cocoa plantations. Right as Finkel’s losing his identity as a prolific, influential journalist, someone actually steals his identity as a prolific, influential journalist; a fugitive named Christian Longo (James Franco) wanted by police for the murders of his wife and children. Already reeling from the loss of his dream job, Longo’s attempts to pass himself off as Finkel is another punch in the gut for the real guy, who travels to Oregon to try to understand his imposter’s actions and find his redemption as a writer.
These early scenes, and the questions they raise about the flimsiness of selfhood, are fascinating. But then Finkel arrives in Oregon and begins to actually talk with Longo, and True Story quickly falls apart. Rather than explore the larger ethical and metaphysical questions at the root of this conflict, it mostly becomes a very tame (and fairly obvious) whodunit in which Finkel repeatedly asks Longo to confess his crimes or reveal who else might have actually killed his family, and Longo repeatedly stonewalls him. These scenes should build into a battle of wills between two formidable intellects (and habitual liars), but Hill and Franco, who’ve had terrific comedic chemistry in movies together and delivered fine dramatic performances separately, don’t quite find the right rhythms for their interactions. They both deliberately tamp down their natural charisma, and Franco, going for mysterious, mostly lands on sleepy and disinterested; he isn’t so much hard to read as he is hard to care about.
There are a few minor subplots — including the thorny relationship between Finkel and his girlfriend Jill (Felicity Jones), and how their home lives parallel Longo’s own domestic issues — but the lackluster jailhouse tête-à-têtes between Hill and Franco crowd out almost everything else, until True Story begins to resemble The Silence of the Lambs if Clarice Starling was played by Jonah Hill, and Hannibal Lecter was a really dull guy imprisoned for taking too many lit classes at Yale.
One could argue this interpretation of real-life events, co-written and directed by Rupert Goold, is depicted in banal fashion on purpose. Finkel’s downfall, after all, was the way he prioritized entertainment value over truth in journalism. The monotonous conversations between Hill and Franco could be there to show that same divide between rigorous-but-bland fact and compelling-but-inaccurate fiction in moviemaking. But as True Story ramps up to its big finale and a courtroom scene of fairly predictable “shocking” revelations, it begins to throw in more sensationalized sequences that totally undermine that interpretation. One could argue that the problem isn’t that True Story is boring (though it frequently is), but that it’s not boring enough.
Either way, all the provocative ideas about the self and self-deception that seem like they’re going to be at the heart of this True Story wind up as window dressing on a very dry legal procedural. How does it feel to share a name with an accused killer? The movie never really lets the audience know. By coincidence (and, yes, this is a true story), I actually have a friend named Kris Longo. Maybe I can ask him.