Film Review: True Story (★★★)

true_storyA fascinating real life drama that you have to imagine was put into production as a would be Oscar contender, True Story is very solid, but never quite reaches the level that a prestige film needs to be at. Especially with a cast that’s led by James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Felicity Jones, you have the expectation of top tier acting. All three are good, though none are given quite as much to do as you might have anticipated. Co-writer/director Rupert Goold turns in unspectacular but mostly effective work on both fronts, which is kind of the standard operating procedure for every part of this flick. I wasn’t let down exactly, but it does seem slightly like a missed opportunity to really put forward an early year Academy Award hopeful. This is the sort of film that has A+ potential all around but settles for being a B across the board. Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting B’s (I was more or less a solid B student outside of my cinema studies classes), but if you’re expecting to get an A, that B can be pretty ugly. That’s not quite the case here, but True Story does seem to be a bit lesser of a movie than it should have been. You can certainly admire the work of Franco and Hill, no doubt about that, but still…True Story is worth recommending (and worth seeing), but it’s simply a good film instead of a great one. In April, you can’t really get too upset about that, I realize, though a missed opportunity is a missed opportunity.

As the title suggests, this is based on a true story. At one point, Michael Frankel (Hill) was a rock star journalist at the New York Times. Of course, that was before it came out that he fabricated parts of a recent story, leading to disgrace and an exit from the paper. Home in Montana to lick his wounds with his supportive wife Jill (Jones), Michael can’t get any other sort of a writing job, as he’s damaged goods. Then, out of nowhere, he gets a call from a writer out in Oregon (Ethan Suplee) asking for a comment about the case of Christian Longo (Franco). Michael has no idea who that is, until he learns that Christian was a supposedly normal family man who had fled the country and was arrested in Mexico on charges of killing his wife and kids. The thing that brings the writer to contact Michael is that when arrested, Christian was using the identity of, you guessed it…Michael Finkel. This gets him to travel out west and eventually meet with Christian, who claims to be innocent. Michael is compelled to investigate, repeatedly talking with Christian, which quickly becomes a cat and mouse game of sorts, with each man trying to figure the other one out. Of course, anyone who knows the actual case will know where things are going, but if you’re unaware, I suppose there could be some suspense in the second and third act. Michael won’t rest until he discovers the truth about the accused killer, but why is he so dead set on seeing this through to the end? True Story sets up some interesting questions, though it only does a decent job of answering them.

maxresdefaultIf there’s one thing to really take away from True Story, it’s the work of the main trio in the cast. James Franco, Jonah Hill, and Felicity Jones each get moments to shine. In Franco’s case, it’s a quieter performance than we’ve seen from him in a while, though a far cry from the sleepwalking he can occasionally seem to succumb to. He’s unsettling in a really effective way. It’s a baity role that he could have gone off the wall with, but while he doesn’t turn in an iconic performance, he does a very good job. Hill is the lead here, and while there’s a bit less juice to his part, I did like watching him get to more or less carry a movie through a dramatic role. It’s not on the level of Moneyball or The Wolf of Wall Steet (where he scored two very deserving Best Supporting Actor nominations), but it’s a top five performance for him to date. As for Jones, she’s got less to do than you’d hope. Still, though slightly underserved, she has one scene towards the end where she absolutely kills it. Aside from the aforementioned Ethan Suplee (who more or less just cameos), the supporting cast includes Gretchen Mol, Robert John Burke, Betty Gilpin, Maria Dizzia, and more. Franco and Hill are best in show though, if you’re curious about that sort of thing. They’re what puts this over the top for me.

In moving from the stage to the screen, Rupert Goold has established himself as a mostly no frills filmmaker. The adaptation he scripted with David Kajganich, based on the real Finkel’s memoir, sets up a solid yet unspectacular film (noticing a trend, I’m sure). Had Goold displayed a slightly stronger sense of direction, it’s possible that he could have elevated things, but he keeps the movie always on a similar level. I’d never say that it gets boring, but it comes close at times. On the technical side, the score by Marco Beltrami is pretty effective though, I must say, while the cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi is on the unexceptional side.

Overall, True Story tells the real tale of Finkel and Longo well enough to justify its cinematic existence, but without the extra passion that could have made this one of 2015’s first really top tier prestige pieces. The ingredients were all there, but the broth is just a little bit bland. Give it a look, particularly if you’re a fan of Franco or Hill, but keep your expectations in check. Provided you don’t go in determined to see a modern classic, I think you’ll be reasonably satisfied. True Story does the job it sets out to do, though I wish it had relished the opportunity slightly more than it ultimately did.

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