REVIEW: True Story is Not Stranger Than Fiction

Fact is stranger than fiction; that’s proven to me on a daily basis. However, movies based on fact are not always stranger (or better) than those based on fiction. In fact, it’s hard to imagine that you could take the crazy facts from Michael Finkel’s memoir and turn them into a movie as lifeless as True Story, a dramatic showcase for actors Jonah Hill and James Franco.

In 2002, Finkel (Hill) was fired from “The New York Times” for creating composite characters in a story he wrote about the African slave trade. During a period of unemployment, Finkel learned about an Oregan man, Christian Longo (Franco) who used Finkel’s name as an alias while he was a fugitive from justice for murdering his wife and children in late 2001.

The one question that was never satisfactorily answered for me in True Story is “why?” Why use the name of a journalist from across the country who probably isn’t even a recognizable name while Longo is on the run in Mexico. For lack of a better explanation, I guess Longo always admired Finkel’s writing. But we never learn enough about his background to give this odd fact the twist it needs.

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Instead, True Story focuses on the relationship between the two men as Finkel visits Longo in jail and negotiates to write his story, one that Longo foolishly hopes will prove his innocence. (Tip: if you want someone to think you’re innocent, don’t admit that you’re guilty.) Therefore, the movie is strictly a drama-character study, not the mystery-thriller it claims to be.

Longo seems to be the more interesting character; he’s certainly more ambiguous. However, True Story focuses more on Finkel. I did find the moral dilemma surrounding his firing to be fascinating, but that’s at the very beginning of the movie. Once it sets the stage for the remainder of the story, he’s not that interesting a character. Neither did I find the relationship between the two to be very interesting.

True Story is the first feature film for writer/director Rupert Goold. It’s solid enough, but has an even pace with no ups and downs. It was co-written by David Kajganich who has a genre background with The Invasion (2007) and Blood Creek (2009), but this one desperately needs a bigger injection of the odd, creepy elements of those two movies to give it some oomph.

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With Moneyball (2011) and The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), Jonah Hill has proven his acting chops. If you had told me five years ago he would be nominated for an Academy Award… twice… I would have told you you’re crazy. He’s good in True Story, demonstrating a little bit of the cockiness that would lead to his firing as well as the humbling desperation he would feel subsequently.

I have a harder time taking James Franco seriously. The guy is everywhere, appearing in 17 projects this year, according to IMDb. He’s more a personality to me than an actor. He does have a crazy look in his eyes that plays in his favor in True Story, but it’s the same crazy look that’s always in his eyes. Even as a potential lunatic, he’s restrained in this movie.

True Story isn’t a bad movie. It’s runs for only 99 minutes, but seems longer. It’s not necessarily boring, but it’s slow. It plants an unbelievable idea as its seed, but it’s one that never grows into a full-fledged story. Perhaps that’s because it takes itself too seriously. I think I would have enjoyed it more with a sensationalistic slant. Maybe the story is better suited for a Friday night NBC television show and the liberties they must take with their ripped from the headlines exposes.

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