Disclaimer: This review may be more recap than critical essay. The following may contain spoilers. Or maybe not. It is quite possible I misremembered key plot points. I have only seen the film once, on a small airplane screen at 35,000 feet, sleep-deprived and under the influence of any number of legal substances. Everyone’s a critic. But inflight entertainment is a safe space where the options are nonthreatening and your expectations low. Skip or screen, the choice is yours.
True Story (2015)
Director: Rupert Goold
Writer: Rupert Goold, David Kajganich
Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Felicity Jones
Runtime: 99 minutes
My Ambien-aided/inhibited analysis:
James Franco, with his squinty smiling eyes, infectious giggle, and performance artist persona, is an enigma. Jonah Hill has the ability to integrate dorkiness and churlishness to create a character that is equal parts endearing and relatable. Such are the reputations Franco and Hill have built their enviable careers on. (The Interview and The Watch, notwithstanding.) The only problem is True Story is not a comedy.
The film, which suffers from the worst title in recent memory and garners a few unintentional laughs, features Hill (turning in yet another dramatic performance following back-to-back Golden Globe nominations) as a recently fired New York Times journalist. James Franco plays a husband and father whose wife and daughters were brutally murdered. Not surprisingly, he is the prime suspect in the case. Upon his capture, he identifies himself to law enforcement by the name of Hill’s character, rather than providing his own. This strange series of events leads to Hill, a bitter recluse following a story gone wrong and his subsequent fall from grace, researching and authoring the imprisoned man’s tell-all account of the night in question and crimes he is accused of committing. In Hill’s mind, seeking the truth is the only crime of which Franco is guilty. Hill self-righteously and self-servingly aids and abets him in this endeavor. Hill’s motives are straightforward: to simultaneously clear both Franco’s and his name. Quite literally, the moniker they initially shared. Hill hopes to regain his credibility as a journalist and reignite his career. If a man is pardoned in the process, then he can eat his cake, too. Franco’s motivations are meant to be less transparent to Hill and the audience.
The film asks you to suspend your disbelief for 99 minutes and accept Franco as the charming sociopath (that stereotypical staple of the crime genre); and Hill, his patsy. I think the film intends to put the viewer ill at ease and on edge beginning with creative casting choices. Through collect calls and conversations in sterile, windowless rooms, our protagonist and antagonist (who is who is up for debate) engage in a tête–à–tête (I use the term loosely as all their communications are heavily monitored by prison guards) that is neither psychologically taut nor particularly chilling. Neither actor is bad in his respective role. If anything, they are ineffectively used, under-served by the lackluster story. In fact, one could argue that Franco is well cast, both against and with type. For he just might be Generation Y’s charming sociopath – a modern day dilettante utilizing various forms and mediums to tell stories and cultivate a persona, both in front of and behind the camera. From Columbia grad school to the widely-panned Oscars hosting gig to the short fiction of Palo Alto, one gets the sense that his whole life is performative, a manipulation of fame and fandom. We are his audience, the unwitting patsy. While Franco’s True Story character suffers and schemes behind bars, the “real” Franco narrowly escapes classification.
In much the same way that the movie attempts to capitalize on the popularity of its stars, it also strives to ride the coattails of the true crime story zeitgeist. Following in the footsteps of The Staircase, In Cold Blood, Serial, and The Jinx, a journalistic subject, throughout the course of their investigation, becomes an integral character. This film pairs the journalist and the alleged murderer as opposing forces and unlikely allies. For me, their relationship failed to provide adequate suspense and payoff. I remember an underwhelming twist. I remember not being shocked. To be fair (though not impartial), I am not without my fair share of blame and comparative negligence. For I was guilty of falling asleep, dozing through most of the middle section, missing the interrogations and court proceedings, and therefore not quite able to grasp the momentousness of the inspired turn.
The film, and the imitators and inspirations mentioned above, calls to mind the infamous opening line from Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.” Hill deludes himself into thinking he occupies the moral high ground in jumping to Franco’s defense, failing to see that his role in this story is paramount and his behavior is beyond reproach. Or is it the other way around? The film is deliberately vague and open to interpretation in the matter of who exactly is manipulative and who is being manipulated.
At the time of this writing, well after my single viewing of the film in 2015, True Story is streaming on HBOGO. I have not re-watched it yet, choosing to catch up on GIRLS instead. And I’m not sure I ever will. I don’t want to refresh my fuzzy, albeit unfavorable, recollection or normalize my viewing experience. For now, True Story will get the benefit of my reasonable doubt. I remember being disappointed. And I know I would be far less forgiving of its flaws, and no more immune to unintentional naps, in the comfort of my own home. I hope I am neither too stupid nor too full of myself to notice what is going on. The truth is: I am not convinced this is a story worth revisiting.