The last time Jonah Hill and James Franco appeared in a movie together, they were getting stoned and trying to escape the end of the world in True Story. There isn’t even a hint of comedy in True Story, which reteams Hill and Franco in the deadly serious account of the relationship between journalist Michael Finkel (Hill) and accused murderer Christian Longo (Franco). In 2001, Finkel was a rising-star investigative reporter for The New York Times who lost his job after fabricating certain details in a story; that same year, Longo was apprehended after fleeing to Mexico and charged with the murders of his wife and three children. At the time of his arrest, Longo had been telling people he was Michael Finkel of The New York Times, and when this strange news reached Finkel, the disgraced reporter with nothing left to lose decided to visit the man who’d been impersonating him.
Both men are looking for redemption, in a way, or at least rehabilitation in the public eye. This Is the End could have been an examination of the slippery nature of truth, or it could have been a clever look into the mutual manipulation going on between two self-absorbed egotists. Instead, director and co-writer Rupert Goold (a stage veteran making his film debut) turns it into a somber, ponderous and sometimes plodding true-crime story. Hill is in full-on Serious Actor mode as Finkel, which means he tones down his appealing natural goofiness, and Franco is mostly on autopilot as Longo. Goold throws in far too many ominous, slow-motion scenes of ordinary events, scored with threatening music, that make the movie seem like it’s going to veer into Silence of the Lambs territory (spoiler alert: It’s not).
Even if the treatment of the story can be a bit lifeless, the facts themselves are so fascinating that the movie can’t help but be compelling. Goold manages to build a bit of suspense for viewers not familiar with the outcome of Longo’s case, and each new twist in the story makes it more outrageous. Longo’s courtroom testimony is particularly mesmerizing, and Franco does his best work conveying Longo’s confidence in laying out his version of events. Hill doesn’t have any similar standout moments, and Finkel, on whose memoir the movie is based, ends up just as inscrutable as Longo in the end.
The movie closes with the requisite onscreen titles about where each person is now, and there are elements of dramatic irony in those few short lines that never come across in the entire preceding 90 minutes. The true story of True Story is enough to grab anyone’s attention, but the way it’s told ends up muting much of the excitement.
True Story Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones. Directed by Rupert Goold. Rated R. Opens Friday.