‘True Story’ Is A Masturbatory Faux Morality Tale Starring Jonah Hill And James Franco

True Story opened in 831 theaters this past weekend, and opens even wider this weekend (find a theater near you here). Here’s my original revised review from Sundance.

True Story is an odd little piece of work. It stars Jonah Hill as Michael Finkel, a journalist who was fired from the the New York Times for inventing a fictional character for a 2002 New York Times Magazine story. He’d combined the stories of multiple cocoa plantation workers he’d interviewed and tried to pass their stories off as the trials and tribulations of one tragic figure. He’d simplified, with a disregard for the truth, in the hopes of telling a simpler story (consider this foreshadowing for the following review). He went from the heights of journalistic celebrity to being a pariah. Just after he was disgraced, he found out an accused murderer named Christian Longo had been traveling under the pseudonym “Michael Finkel” after allegedly killing his wife and three kids. Turns out, Longo was a Finkel fan, and once he was in custody, he offered Finkel exclusive access to his story. Ta da! Career resurrection. Finkel got a half-million dollar advance and sold the film rights to Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B. James Franco plays Longo in the film.

Finkel’s book, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, as the title might suggest, is part autobiography, part apology for his journalistic sins – both for fabricating the Times story and for supposedly being duped by Longo, this charming murderer he used to resurrect his career. Director Rupert Goold called the film “a moral fable” during the post-film Q & A, and it seems to have been this misread that doomed the film. True Story eventually collapses under the weight of all the moralizing.

True Story is so busy worrying about morality that it sort of forgets to tell a story. It feels oddly obsessed with taking Finkel to task for his sins. Those sins that, let’s remember, he’s made a second career apologizing for, and the ones the filmmakers helped him profit from. With its strangely judgmental attitude towards its own source material, which is itself a judgment, the whole thing becomes such a complicated dance of moral distancing that you start to wonder what everyone’s so sorry for. Finkel apologizes for taking on the job that the filmmakers read, and the movie judges him for those same sins they helped underwrite. And now you want to teach us a lesson about morals? No thanks, bro.

Early in the film, Felicity Jones’s character, playing Finkel’s long-suffering fianceé (and transparently functioning as the film’s obnoxious, finger wagging conscience), asks Finkel, “Why do you want to tell the story of a murderer?”

Everyone deserves to have their story told,” Finkel answers.

I was actually onboard with this statement, and was hoping they might try to explore it. Instead it turns out that it’s only the naive “before” picture for Finkel’s overly simplified character arc. Finkel does an about-face 20 minutes later when it turns out Longo was just using him to practice coming up with a plausible story for his defense. Finkel is then shocked, shocked at the idea that Longo might be a murderer, despite knowing the evidence all along. It’s a fake dramatic reversal, a way to tell the easy story – “I got duped by a clever sociopath because of my own vanity!” – to avoid telling a harder one. Disingenuously simplified, just like the cocoa plantation story.

Meanwhile, the film manages to get duped by Finkel, even while claiming a moral high ground. It’s heavy handed, going to great pains to show how vain and foolish Finkel was, but it’s all still on Finkel’s terms. Instead of calling him on any of his actual bullsh*t, the film is simply stronger in its condemnation of what Finkel had already (disingenuously) condemned himself for. Oh, I get it! Not everyone does deserve to have their story told! I mean, not if they’re murderers! Lock him up and throw away his pens! It’s hard to get much insight from a film that tells us to be less curious.

True Story seems to think that it’s enough to draw a parallel between journalist and murderer and call it a day. They’re the same! Both jerks! That might be interesting if we came to some kind of understanding about either of these people, but it’s hard to understand someone when you’re busy judging them.

Grade: C+

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the Uproxx network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.