PARK CITY – There is a moment in Rupert Goold's “True Story” that is truly captivating. After watching her husband be manipulated from afar, Jill Finkel (played marvelously by Felicity Jones), goes to meet accused murderer Christian Longo (James Franco) at the county jail where he's incarcerated. In less than five minutes Jill uses the tale of 16th century composer Carlo Gesualdo, who murdered his wife and baby in cold blood, to unmask Longo as the killer she knows he is and to make it clear his charade will only get so far as long as she's around. It's a moment that demonstrates how talented the current Oscar nominee for Best Actress is in what has been a thankless role up until his point in the film. It also underlines how frustrating a film “True Story” is that the best scene in the movie doesn't include star Jonah Hill and barely involves Franco.
Based on the memoir by Michael Finkel, “True Story” starts by depicting the circumstances that led to the dismissal of once famed reporter Finkel (Hill) from the venerable New York Times. Disgraced and unable to find work, Finkel gets a random call from an Oregon newspaper reporter who informs him that Longo had used Finkel's name as an alias while on the run in Mexico. Intrigued by Longo's case, he writes Longo a letter hoping to sit down and get his story. Longo, who admits to being a huge fan of Finkel's writing, agrees and the duo begin regular meetings where the reporter agrees to teach the inmate how to become a better writer if he tells him the true story of what really happened to his family.
Longo, who maintained his innocence until after being sent to death row, was convicted of murdering his wife and three children in December of 2001. The film doesn't really cast any doubt that Longo is guilty. What Goold is more interested in is discovering why these two men would even correspond with each other. The film insinuates that Longo provides some details for Finkel's eventual memoir “True Story,” but doesn't do a good job of conveying why they fascinate each other. There is a stark moment during Longo's testimony during the trial where he uses a line that Finkel had said to him in confidence to help sell his story of innocence to the jury. It's not an alibi, it's not some justification for his actions, but Goold plays it as some sort of epic betrayal and perhaps that's the biggest problem with “True Story” after all.
While Longo's actions were horrifying and his connection to Finkel is unique, Goold somehow can't make this material as interesting as you'd expect it to be. Longo is a charismatic manipulator in the same vein as some of the most famous killers in American history. That simply does not come across in the film and part of the problem is Franco. The 36-year-old actor didn't get the credit he deserved for his work in “The Interview,” but in “Story” he just isn't convincing. He has demonstrated on-screen charisma before, but in this case he's unable to portray the sly manipulator Longo had become. Strangely, he actually might have been a better choice to play Finkel.
While Hill might be slightly miscast as Finkel, he has one powerful scene at the end of the film where his dramatic acting skills shine through. For the most part, however, Finkel is portrayed as a desperate man almost obsessed with Longo as the one means to restore his tarnished reputation. Hill isn't responsible for the film's repetitive scenes focusing on this beat, but he isn't able to make us feel any sympathy for Finkel's personal plight.
Goold's directorial debut is assisted by some fine camerawork by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (“Out of the Furnace”) and stylish production designer Jeremy Bindle (“Zero Dark Thirty”). That being said, the editing choices seem arbitrarily odd at times. There is no doubt a compelling film is there to be mined from this material, but Goold couldn't find it.
“True Story” is currently scheduled for a limited release on April 10.