Truth is strange, but hardly any more interesting than fiction in “True Story,” a perplexingly serious new collaboration for James Franco and Jonah Hill. In Franco’s case, this macabre project plays right into the label-defying star’s ongoing exploration of slippery identities (here he plays a sociopath beyond redemption). Even so, one wonders just how eager audiences will be to watch a tony adaptation of ex-New York Times reporter Michael Finkel’s self-serving memoir, a conscience-cleanser written to redeem himself after being tarred and feathered for inventing a composite character in a high-profile cover story.
Unlike 2004’s respected yet low-earning “Shattered Glass,” this unconventional two-hander is less preoccupied with the undoing of a respected journo than with the odd bond that Finkel (Hill) went on to forge with convicted child killer Christian Longo (an appropriately icy Franco). Nor is the script — a surprisingly non-conceptual treatment, considering how Charlie Kaufman the project could have gone, co-written by David Kajganich and director Rupert Goold — all that concerned with the truthiness factor that permeates every page of Finkel’s original treatment.
Embracing the dramatic liberties of adaptation, the accessibly structured screenplay constantly bends details for effect while holding true to the psychological core of its source. Eager to clear his name after being dumped by the Gray Lady, Finkel discovers that his identity has been stolen by someone whose notoriety far outstrips his own: a man accused of murdering his wife and kids, who fled the States and adopted the alias of Michael Finkel of the New York Times while on the lam in Mexico. Instead of getting angry at the impersonation, the real Finkel decides to cozy up to this chronic liar, hoping, as he puts it, “Maybe you could tell me what it’s like to be me.”
So begins one of indie cinema’s more peculiar friendships, complicated by the fact that the two leads are longtime amigos in real life. Given the actors’ shared history, there’s none of that first-time electricity when the two characters meet. If anything, we half expect them to drop the act at any second, break out a bong and revert to their offscreen stoner personalities. But in due course, we come to recognize that Hill and Franco are giving fully earnest, no-nonsense performances, albeit in roles that allow them far less creative latitude than, say, “Moneyball” and “Spring Breakers.”
In Goold’s hands, the two thesps deliver measured, soul-searching work. Both Finkel and Longo found in one another a much-needed confessor, as well as a potential redeemer. The film leaves out the remark from Longo’s lawyer (who had every reason to fear that his client might let some damning remark slip in his interviews with Finkel) that he permitted the meetings to continue since Longo had no other friends in prison. Such is the fate of an accused child murderer — an undeniably heavy burden for Franco to play, and one can practically sense that darkness gnawing at the typically animated actor’s psyche.
Hill, on the other hand, comes across as more likable than his real-life counterpart, who was publicly pilloried for fudging the central profile in his expose on allegations of child slavery in the African chocolate trade. Working with “Warrior” d.p. Masanobu Takayanagi, Goold frequently shoots the two characters in closeup, speculating on the delusions masked by Longo’s impenetrable brown eyes, while watching Finkel’s conscience squirm behind Hill’s tortoiseshell frames.
Editors Christopher Tellefsen and Nicolas de Toth seem equally keen on other subtle bits of body language, weaving in glimpses of fidgeting hands, nervous postures and, most devilishly, a damning wink. Less effective are the clumsy flashbacks to the crimes themselves, arising at illogical moments as painful reminders of the innocent victims’ young age.
A massively respected British theater director making his bigscreen debut, Goold opts for an iconic, somewhat larger-than-life look for the film, centering the action around such archetypal locations as the writer’s Montana cottage and the prison’s stark white visitation room, then stripping away any peripheral characters or details that might distract. It’s an assured, impressive first effort, given added heft from Marco Beltrami’s near-constant yet non-invasive score — the sort of elegant, slightly melancholy accompaniment most often associated with Carter Burwell, beautifully rendered in pianos and strings.
If anything, the music invites a depth of introspection upon which the screenplay can’t quite deliver. “True Story” teases us along with promises that Finkel will get to the bottom of Longo’s case. At one point, the earnest reporter is the only one willing to believe that he might be innocent, a possibility borne out by Longo’s intense, tough-to-watch testimony in his own case. But it also reveals the man to be a master manipulator, even going so far as to pry into Finkel’s relationship with his g.f. (Felicity Jones), whose otherwise distracting presence pays off when she finally decides to visit Longo in prison.
Did that encounter happen? Not exactly, but then, as a movie, “True Story” needn’t worry about passing muster with the New York Times’ fact-checkers. It was a weird little tale to begin with, and over the course of its nearly eight-year development, the filmmakers managed to streamline and embellish the source material until it worked dramatically. Did Longo deserve to have his story told? Finkel thinks so, even if his mostly irritating mea culpa left the issue very much in question. While never as gripping as a good piece of fiction, Goold’s treatment actually manages to improve on the book, even if that meant fabricating a few things along the way.