True Story: Jones (Almost) Saves It

True Story
(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Rupert Goold, Writ. Rupert Goold, David Kajganich
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones
Jonah Hill as Mike Finkel and Felicity Jones as Jill in True Story.
Mary Cybulski © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

Three cheers go to Felicity Jones for almost saving True Story. The British actress, Theory of Everything star, and LEGO Oscar-winner dons a deep American accent for her turn as Jill, the wife of ex-New York Times writer Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill), and she gets the one big actorly moment in a film that should rightly be an actors’ showpiece. It’s a great scene. Jones owns it.

This latter-act turn offers the only real moment of resonance in True Story as Jill confronts the subject of Michael’s latest story—murder, exectuee in waiting, and all-around sicko Christian Longo (James Franco)—and Jones looks Franco straight  in the eye and gives a compellingly dramatic speech about what a worthless and deplorable turd Longo is. Her words are probably the exact thoughts running through the minds of most viewers of True Story by this point, so it’s nice to have someone articulate so powerfully and so succinctly the main takeaway of the film: just why in heck is this guy worth anyone’s time?

True Story never gives any reason to care about Longo from the moment it introduces him as the murderer of his wife and three children. Sure, he’s clearly deranged on some level since he pretends to be Michael Finkel from The New York Times whenever someone asks, but this guy is total scum from the first frame in which he appears to the very last second of the film. His guilt is never in doubt, and Franco never makes Longo the least bit sympathetic, likable, or compelling. He’s self-aware and cocky, which is just what one expects a narcissistic headline-baiting baby-killer to be.

Michael’s just as much of a dunce, too, despite his NYT cred, which is pulled out from under him in the beginning of the film when he’s marked as a liar—one of the parallels he shares with Longo throughout the film. This guy should know better given his background and investigatory skillz, but Longo plays Finkel like a proverbial fiddle as he draws him into his story and lets him redeem himself by creating a truth out of fiction that presents itself as fact. Every nugget Longo presents is a doozy, yet True Story shows how can “fact” assumes a degree of reliability when an inquisitor so desperately wants to believe his source.

True Story features numerous tête-à-têtes between Hill and Franco as they play a psychological cat and mouse game in which one tries to grab the truth like a crumble of cheese. It’s a lot of flat dialogue, though, akin to a pudgy cat laying on the carpet and waiting for the mouse to come to it.

True Story never really has the chops to sell itself since the cat and mouse and sorely miscast with Hill and Franco. Both actors play against type with Hill being super-serious and Franco being sinister and creepy. True Story doesn’t let either of them approach Robin Williams territory and take their characters to dark places. There are almost pauses in which comedic tension lingers in the air and one expects either of them to rip a fart, turn to the camera, and admit that it’s all a big joke. Neither actor displays the dramatic chops to invest the audience in either side of the psychological mind game, which is disappointing since they've both shown great dramatic ranges before, so True Story fizzles rather quickly even though Michael’s predicament offers a hefty moral quandary that invites a great trial. The true story is that only Jill is worth anyone’s time here, and Jones is a smart enough mouse to escape the trap.

Rating: ★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

True Story is now playing in theatres.