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Film Review: 'True Story' - Mea Culpa? - Mea Crap-a.

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(L–R) Jonah Hill as Mike Finkel and James Franco as Christian Longo in “True Story.” Photo by Mary Cybulski. Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved.

Ego and narcissism mix into a fine cocktail for the setting of the latest bromance film from actors James Franco and Jonah Hill, though the seriousness of it’s premise is all too real.

In 2002, an on the rise New York Times field reporter Michael Finkel (Hill) is fired from his prestigious journalism job for writing a composited story about a non-existent young African boy who is sold into bondage on a cocoa plantation. Finkel is stripped of all credibility, thus ruining his career. On the same day that the editor’s retraction is scheduled to print, Finkel receives a call from a reporter in Oregon, inquiring if he has any comment on the Christian Longo murders.

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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.

Longo (Franco), 29, is a family man who has been charading as—wait for it—“Mike Finkel, a journalist for the New York Times,” while traveling in Mexico after murdering his wife and three children.

Executively produced by Brad Pitt, True Story is based on Finkel’s book, entitled True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, a mixed-genre account of the three years he spent corresponding with and visiting Longo throughout his subsequent investigation and trial.

However unbelievable the circumstances are, this big screen version takes on the intricacies of such a story with a loose dedication to truth.

The film begins with the poetically calculated visual montage of suitcases resurfacing in a body of water and tastefully examined by the coroner’s office, intercut with the backstory and fall of Finkel’s career and the last free moments of Longo’s life in Mexico.

Director Rupert Goold and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi did a masterful job of composing images that provided both a sense of foreboding and foreshadowing in these opening scenes. In one of the final images of the montage, a German tourist Longo meets lies asleep in the bed; post coital, appearing reminiscent of a corpse in florescent lighting.

The tone and pacing is set and nuanced with the continuous scoring by Marco Beltrami, adding an air of sophistication and introspection to every scene.

Finkel, lost in disgrace contacts Longo under the guise of wanting to know what it was like to be him. The two men form a friendship. Longo, a long time fan of Finkel’s work, asks to be given writing lessons in exchange for exclusive access to his story. At the crossroads of what seems like an improbable coincidence, Finkel decides to write a book.

The rest of the film is a series of visitations between Finkel and Longo, shot in extreme close-ups to depict intimacy. However, many of the opening lines were predictable and cliché. These are coupled with long, slow cross dissolves that reveal the underpinning narratives, like family flashbacks and the progress of Finkel’s book deal, culminating in the trial and verdict where Longo testifies to the graphic details of his family’s deaths.

There is something very diluted throughout the entire film, Felicity Jones’ character, for example, Jill Finkel is entirely expository; she has almost no lines, no presence and a completely unrealistic face-off with Longo towards the end. Also, both she and Hill appear a bit too young for their roles.

Hill does not hold the presence of a well-traveled man that has just experienced a crushing blow to his ego; his best performance was while playing the arrogant prick version of Finkel’s former self, bluffing while playing poker, on deadline for the story that would end his career or being condescending to poor Africans, holding up a $20 bill stating, “See this? You’ll get this when we are done.”  

All of the well-crafted visual devices used to illustrate the overbearing presence of this case and story in the life of Michael and Jill Finkel were pretty, but lacked the support of character development to bring dynamics to their relationship.

It was hard to know what Finkel and Longo had in common, besides their own sense of self importance above all, leaving the audience to wonder, why do we care about either person’s story or their shared realities? Especially, when both are revealed to be such monstrous liars.

Franco’s meek demeanor did not come off as the calm killer, however calculated it may have been. For the majority of his scenes he appeared despondent and frustrated.

In the end, True Story was taken over by the trial hearing, which worked the shallow device of mystery, with surprise pleadings and hints to cover-ups.  When those intrigues began to fade, the film took on a magical realism that was unnecessary.

The final shot of Hill’s face, representing Finkel’s bewilderment when he thinks he sees Longo at his book reading, lacked the punctuation this narrative so desperately needed.