Michael Finkel (played by Jonah Hill) and Christian Longo (James Franco), the subjects of True Story, are each desperately searching for someone to believe in them. Finkel, a formerly award-winning New York Times reporter, has just been fired for falsifying his sources and then denying it, and now finds freelance writing jobs hard to come by. Longo’s situation is much worse — the Starbucks employee is accused of murdering his wife and their three young children, stuffing their bodies into suitcases, then sinking them in the waters off Waldport, Oregon.
The ironic angle, the plot wrinkle that makes director Rupert Goold’s drama a shade more attractive than Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, is that in the movie Finkel and Longo are both shown to be habitual liars and cheaters, perfectly capable of making excuses and conning their acquaintances. So at first, when the fugitive Longo is arrested for co-opting Finkel’s identity and posing as a respected reporter, he’s actually stealing trash. No one who really counts believes in anything either one of them says. So it’s natural that they eventually begin to hustle each other, when Finkel gets a lucrative contract to write a “true-crime” book about Longo.
The bulk of the movie — adapted by Goold and writer David Kajganich from Finkel’s memoir of the same name — takes place during Longo’s trial in Oregon. Finkel commutes there from his home in Montana, where his wife Jill (Felicity Jones) more or less functions as the audience’s proxy, witnessing her husband falling under the influence of the smooth-talking Longo with an incredulous look on her face.
It’s perverse fun to watch two of Hollywood’s leading clowns straight-facing each other across a table in the Lincoln County jail. We keep wondering who’s going to break up laughing. But of course we have to step back and remember that Longo is accused of a heinous capital crime, and that the gullible Finkel is building a case for Longo’s innocence, if only in his book manuscript. Franco and Hill have both made successful careers portraying tricksters — Franco in Palo Alto, Spring Breakers, Pineapple Express, etc.; Hill most notably in The Wolf of Wall Street and Cyrus. They also costarred in the “apocalyptic” farce This Is the End, with fellow changeling Seth Rogen. True Story upends the mocking tone of those projects by imprinting their devious screen personae on a story in which someone — we’re not quite sure who — has crushed the skulls of toddlers.
We never quite get over the queasy feeling that we’re watching two intelligent, irreverent actors having fun playing games with a couple of hideous real-life personalities. It doesn’t matter whether True Story is indeed true. We can admire the concept, but we’re happy when it’s over.