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True Story

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Apr 17, 2015
Jonah Hill and James Franco star in 'True Story'
Jonah Hill and James Franco star in 'True Story'  (Source:Fox Searchlight Pictures)

In the opening moments of "True Story," we meet two men, in two different locations, each of whom claims to be a New York Times reporter named Michael Finkel. They could scarcely be much different, and yet their lives are about to intersect in a way that puts them across from each other like funhouse mirror reflections. But here's the question the movie poses: Which man is normal, and which monstrously distorted?

The real Finkel turns out to be the one played by Jonah Hill. He no sooner returns from Africa with a heart-rending story of human exploitation than he's exposed as having fabricated some of the article. Disgraced, and out of a job, Finkel retreats to Montana, where he has a house with his wife Jill (Felicity Jones). There, licking his wounds, Finkel considers his options and works his contacts. Just as it seems he's more or less out of both, he gets a call from a reporter in Oregon (Ethan Suplee) who fills him in on the other Micahel Finkel -- or, as he's known by his real name, Christian Longo (James Franco), a man accused of murdering his wife and all three of his children.

Finkel arranges to meet with Longo, curious as to why the alleged killer would have posed as him during his flight from justice. That's not all, of course; Finkel also scents the possibility of redemption. If, that is, the story is good enough; if, that is, he can spin it in a way that will open the doors to professional success once more. Finical has a book deal in mind. The publisher he works with is eager for such a sensational book, but wary: Will a journalist who has been discredited prove capable of turning in an account that's both factual and fascinating to read?

Longo throws off many mixed signals, hinting that he's innocent but must play guilty because of unknown factors. Is he covering for someone else? Or is he simply playing games? Can Finkel find his way to the truth, or will he be suckered and, worse, disgraced all over again?

Director Rupert Goold lets us dangle between the different possibilities, and he coaxes riveting performances from Hill and Franco. (In case anyone wondered if the two could work as well together in a drama as they do in comedy, they prove themselves here.) But it's hard to escape the sense that the story isn't so much "true" as "true-ish," fluffed, primped, and trimmed for dramatic and cinematic purposes. Even if it has been, does it matter? When outlandish fantasies about demonic possession are labels as being "based on actual events" and infotainment has a definite, and growing, influence on our culture and politics, it may no longer be the case that we care to separate fact from fiction -- and the movies have never exactly been a place for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

The film wants to feel important, and it flirts with being a procedural -- but it would have done better to stick with celebrating the slippery interface between facts and the human truths we construct from them. Should we be convinced by what we see on the screen, merely because that's the version of the story that made it there? The movie almost dares us to challenge it, but in the end it barely manages to ask us to identify with a man who, looking into the aggrieved and burning eyes of a possible vicious killer, fancies that he's gazing at a darker version of himself. That, too, feels like a fiction, though, and the fictions never quite weave and cohere into a solid structure that really does feel like fact.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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