I think I have to start this review with an obligatory proclamation of how utterly surreal it is to see Jonah Hill and James Franco playing opposite one another, both in non-comedic roles. Oh, neither actor is a stranger to dramatic acting, but the juxtaposition of the two in a film that never once tries to make its audience crack a smile is rather bizarre, which is probably why the film didn’t do so well at the box office. But once that initial shock wears off, True Story ends up being a satisfying experience, even if it does take some liberties with the supposed truth of its tale.
Jonah Hill plays Mike Finkel, a recently disgraced journalist who was fired from the New York Times for falsifying information in an article. While struggling to find employment, he hears of a man who was arrested in Mexico after fleeing the jurisdiction where he allegedly murdered his wife and three children. What peaks Mike’s interest is that this man used Mike’s name and occupation as his identity while on the run. Mike meets with the man, Christian Longo (Franco), and Mike tries to unravel the truth behind Christian’s secretive version of what really happened to his family.
True Story owes a lot to the film Capote in terms of structure and basic storytelling gimmicks, from the manipulation of flashbacks to offer selective information to the audience to the double-talking face-to-face conversations between journalist and prisoner. This isn’t a bad thing; if one plans to emulate, why not emulate greatness? And Hill and Franco are actually quite compelling and believable in their roles, with Hill’s willing naiveté and Franco’s droopy-eyed lethargy fitting perfectly to these characters. And yet, due to the film’s fairly derivative nature from its decade-old masterful muse, it never quite feels like a unique experience. Again, that doesn’t make it a bad film, just one that is a bit predictable and trite.
The biggest criticism I’ve been reading about this film is that the “true story” elements of the actual events at play have been manipulated in order to conveniently play out its traditional narrative. And, yes, it is perhaps a bit disingenuous to manipulate the truth in a story where journalistic ethics are a main theme. However, this is a piece of narrative fiction. The reason that True Story succeeds as a film where, say, American Sniper does not is that it’s telling its story with characters that have arcs in order to communicate themes and a plot to its audience. If I wanted to have an accurate representation of the events that transpired, I would read the memoir that the film was based on or watch a documentary about the same. With narrative fiction, though, one has to go in understanding a certain degree of creative license is at play, and while that should never so completely manipulate a story as to make it unrecognizable, based on a true story should never be taken to mean more than just that.
On the whole, True Story is not a great film, but it is a serviceable one. If you’ve watched any sort of true crime film before, you’ll likely be able to deduce the major plot twists well before they happen, but the formula is well-served by the two primary performers, offering a serious turn in tandem that I honestly would have never expected otherwise. Check it out if seeing that spectacle intrigues you.
What other primarily comedic actors have made great turns in dramatic acting? Share your favorites in the comments below.