The sequence that opens True Story tells you plenty about what you're in for: A rumpled teddy bear drifts down from our vantage point like a puffy brown snowflake, landing with slow-motion deliberateness on the form of a PJ-clad toddler curled up in a suitcase, seemingly asleep. She's like an Egyptian king being readied for the sendoff into the afterworld, a few remnants of little-girl life — a pink tutu, a pair of ballet slippers — nestled around her still form. Even if we don't know what's coming next, we can guess: An unseen somebody zips the suitcase closed and drops it into the drink. The next time we see it, it's being hauled from some as-yet unidentified body of water, seaweed and slime clinging to its zipper. The coroner opens it and doesn't like what he sees. Neither do we, even though most of what's inside is discreetly hidden from us. It's hard to know if we're being shielded from the worst or having our nose rubbed in it.
That's the central problem with True Story, the debut feature from British director Rupert Goold, based on Michael Finkel's 2005 memoir of the same name. This is a perhaps too-tasteful movie about a deeply unsavory subject: In 2002, ambitious and prolific New York Times reporter Finkel — here played by Jonah Hill — was fired for bending the facts in a Times magazine cover story about slave trading in modern-day Africa. As we see in the movie, he flies back to his home base in Montana in shame, struggling to rebuild his reputation. Then he learns that his name has been "stolen" by an Oregon man who's just been arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife and three small children. Finkel meets with the man, creepy charmer Christian Longo (James Franco), who fawns over his writing and makes an enticing offer: He claims he can prove his innocence and will tell his story exclusively to Finkel, on the condition that it not be published until after his trial. Finkel takes the bait and — bet you didn't see this coming — learns more about his own dark side as he delves into Longo's.
Especially for a movie that springs from a horrific and grisly crime, True Story feels undershaped and indistinct; it's too dispassionate to be genuinely chilly. The flashback moments, in which we're given a sense of how Longo's crimes were actually committed, are hazy and muted, and while you want to give Goold credit for not sensationalizing them, they feel blanched and bloodless and somehow detached from the rest of the movie. The focus is, rightly, on the snake and snake-charmer interplay between Longo and Finkel, but not even that has the right degree of heft. We're supposed to see how Longo's manipulation of Finkel is poisoning his life, including his relationship with his wife, Jill (Felicity Jones), whom we barely see. Mostly, Jones drifts in and out of the movie with a half-confused, half-determined air, while Hill's Finkel spends most of his time marching to the mailbox, either to send something off to his publisher or check to see if Longo has sent him any goodies from prison.
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Goold attempts some jazzy techniques to make all of this exciting, showing us montage-y cuts of the long missives Longo writes and sends to Finkel, which are illustrated with heavily crosshatched pencil drawings that look as if they sprang from the mind of Francisco Goya in his darker moments. How can Finkel, even with his deeply bruised ego, not immediately see the degree of manipulation that's going on here? Not that the actors don't strive, with white-knuckle determination, to make the damn thing work. Even if we don't quite know how Finkel could buy so willingly into Longo's smiling-crocodile bill of goods, Hill — with his intent stare, the look of a man whose nerve endings have been frayed to bits — somehow makes us believe in the man's psychic suffering. His performance has conviction; it just seems strangely unmoored from the movie around it.
But what to do about James Franco? Franco isn't just in danger of overexposure; he's been showing up so frequently these past few years — as an actor, a director, a writer-actor-director, a producer-writer-director-cinematographer-janitor — that he's almost like a sun-bleached daguerreotype of himself, a persistent but unwelcome ghost who keeps appearing on our movie screens. We see him, but we don't want to see him — it's so much easier, and more gratifying, just to make fun of him, which many of us do with abandon.
That's a shame, because if Franco would just scale back a bit, he might be able to make us want him again. He's a gifted, hardworking actor; the problem is that all of the work shows. When Longo and Finkel first meet, Longo seems to be greasing the very air with his smile — the performance is momentarily exciting. But as the two spend more time together, Franco's technique becomes increasingly wearying. More than once, the camera fixates on him as his eyes lose all of their light — they're half-sleepy, half-dead, an obvious clue that this guy is no good. (Not that Finkel picks up on it.)
Franco is a good enough actor to know how to do that sort of thing; whether he should be doing it in True Story — or at least doing it as much as he does — is another question, and it's one for Goold, too. Every time I saw that creeping blankness, I heard an imaginary "dunh-dunh-DUNH!" music cue. Franco and Hill appeared together fairly recently, in the apocalyptic comedy This Is the End, and you'd think their onscreen chemistry would have a little more fizz here. As it is, we're just not sure why Finkel, even in his clearly desperate state, wouldn't run a mile from this guy. Franco does his damnedest to make us believe Longo is a smooth but cold-blooded killer. Is it our fault or his that we look at all he's doing and think only, "It's James Franco — again!"? His ubiquity has turned him into a specter we can see right through, and that's a very sad thing for any actor to be.