Starring James Franco and Jonah Hill, the new drama "True Story" is indeed based on one of those: Hill portrays Michael Finkel, a disgraced New York Times journalist who formed a strange bond with Christian Longo (Franco), the accused murderer who assumed his identity while on the lam.
But while the underlying story may be stranger than fiction, the film itself, directed and co-written by theater veteran Rupert Goold, has met with generally unenthusiastic notices.
In a review for The Times, Robert Abele writes, "Unfortunately this 'Story' never finds its footing as either a creepy morality play or a performance-driven two-hander."
The trouble, Abele says, is that the audience "has way too much time to realize the narcissistic folly of Finkel's exercise in forcing spiritual 'we're both sinners!' kinship with someone who in all likelihood dropped two of his children off a bridge, and we henceforth don't buy a single thing the coolly smiling Longo has to say. That's not to imply the leads aren't good or occasionally compelling; they're just obvious."
In a more positive but still ambivalent review, USA Today's Claudia Puig calls "True Story" an "intrinsically fascinating and occasionally riveting tale marred by unnecessary embellishments." The story has a "killer" premise, she says, "So why does director Rupert Goold shoehorn contrivances to amplify the drama? The powerful real-life story is provocative enough on its own."
As for the cast, Puig writes that "Franco has flashes of chilling manipulation as an enigmatic sociopath and Hill hints at his character's underlying despair, but neither is convincing enough." And while supporting player Felicity Jones is "a terrific actress," her big scene "feels overly theatrical."
The Boston Globe's Ty Burr says the film "leads with its chin from the title on down and … turns a startling tale of true crime and false identities into a heavy-breathing drama that, ironically, fails to convince."
The main problem, Burr continues, is the direction. Goold is "clearly talented; he clearly wants us to know it. What could be a fleet, sharp tale of an amateur fabulist taken to school by a pro is bogged down with portentous slow-motion shots, an overabundance of flashbacks, multiple exposure montages, and other assorted whoop-de-do."
Variety's Peter Debruge is more favorable, calling "True Story" an "assured, impressive first effort" from Goold, even if Marco Beltrami's score "invites a depth of introspection upon which the screenplay can't quite deliver." (Goold co-wrote with David Kajganich.)
Finkel and Longo's story "was a weird little tale to begin with," Debruge writes, "and over the course of its nearly eight-year development, the filmmakers managed to streamline and embellish the source material until it worked dramatically."
But the New York Times' A.O. Scott says "True Story" is of interest "mainly because it demonstrates just how difficult it can be to map the queasy moral territory where crime and journalism intersect." As a movie, it's "fuzzy, lazy and thoroughly declawed. … Two stars giving recessive, wary, passive-aggressive performances — with Ms. Jones assigned the thankless task of providing some emotional color — leave the movie hollow and inert. The echoing emptiness should not be mistaken for resonance.
Scott concludes, "The real story of Christian Longo and Michael Finkel might be a fascinating and disturbing tale of crime, curiosity and journalistic ethics, but that's not what this movie is."
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