Truth is stranger than fiction in the new film True Story, a cinematic blend of the journalistic morality tale Shattered Glass and a John Grisham legal thriller from the ‘90s. It has a basic structure, and while its execution may also seem familiar, the film as a whole still manages to entertain.
James Franco and Jonah Hill lead the cast of True Story, and it should be stated upfront that the film is a drama based on the real life cat-and-mouse game between a disgraced reporter and a detained prisoner. Some audiences may find it hard to get past the duo’s comedic baggage to take them seriously in a drama such as this, but the transition is easier to accept than you’d think. For starters, both men have Academy Award nominations to prove their worth in dramas, but if that’s not enough, the film makes it very clear from its first scene that the tone will be anything but comedic. Franco and Hill have come to stretch their dramatic muscles in True Story and despite the film’s shortcomings, the pair’s acting chops is not one of them.
True Story is based on ex-New York Times reporter Michael Finkel’s memoir of the same name. In the film, we are introduced to Finkel (Hill) just as he’s getting the boot at the prestigious paper for falsifying the details of his latest cover story. Expecting a Pulitzer instead of a pink slip, Finkel retreats to the countryside with his tail between his legs and the support of his girlfriend (Felicity Jones, in an underwritten role). After some time in seclusion, he’s contacted by Christian Longo (Franco), a fan of his work who also happens to be on trial for murder. With nothing else to do and a nagging curiosity tempting him at every turn, the two men meet in Longo’s detention cell and actually hit it off. But the more the two men talk, the more the hidden agendas start to reveal themselves, building to a climax most will see coming a mile away.
The film is the directorial debut of Rupert Goold and while it’s competent enough and knows how to get the job done, there isn’t any extra layer of pop or tension to bring it to life. It stagnantly goes through the motions and never comes alive. Franco and Hill do a great job of anchoring the story with the limited tools they’ve been given, but Felicity Jones is the one in the core trio to get the shaft story-wise. When the screenplay decides to beef up her character and actually get her involved in the main story, it’s way too late. By then she’s already been written-off as a one-note character, and to make matters worse, the task her character is given is the most laughable and out of left field in the movie.
True Story is entertaining in parts, but way too by-the-numbers to merit any genuine surprise or recommendation. Franco and Hill are continuing to put in solid dramatic work and I wish them well as they continue their struggle to break out of comedy jail.
True Story premiered at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival and opens nationwide April 10.