James Franco and Jonah Hill Deliver a ‘True Story’

Full disclosure: I never followed the real-life events that inspired this movie, so I am a perfect audience for it. If you know the saga of disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel and his involvement with a man who was accused of murdering his wife and children, you may have an entirely different reaction…especially if you’ve seen Finkel interviewed on TV and heard the recordings he made of Christian Longo while he was in prison.

What elevates this film above the level of a television docudrama is the performances by Jonah Hill and James Franco. Hill has established his credibility as a dramatic actor by now, but Franco takes on a challenge I’ve never seen him attempt before. He remains enigmatic, aloof, and unreadable as a man who may have committed a crime so heinous it almost defies belief. Yet he manages to engage reporter Hill, whose job it is to separate fact from fiction.

Jonah Hill-True Story

Photo by Mary Cybulski – Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

British stage director Rupert Goold makes his film debut with this unusual drama, a mood piece he also wrote with David Kajganich from Michael Finkel’s tell-all book. The film (like the book, I presume) obliges us to consider the ethics of a reporter who, after being fired from the Times for fudging the truth in a major story, sees a chance at redemption—and riches—in landing a true-crime scoop.

The story plays out, in large part, on the two actors’ faces, and their committed performances make True Story watchable. (Felicity Jones, who plays Hill’s wife, has one key scene that validates her presence in the picture.)

Yet in spite of this True Story has not resonated with me. I appreciate the quality of performances, and I’d especially encourage Franco fans to check out his work. Overall, I’d call this a good effort with modest results.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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June 2024