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Movie review: Hill-Franco duo chills, charms in ‘True Story’

Jonah Hill, left, and James Franco appear in a scene from “True Story.”
Jonah Hill, left, and James Franco appear in a scene from “True Story.”
Roger Moore Tribune News Service

One is a newly disgraced New York Times reporter desperately in search of a career-reviving scoop.

The other is a newly captured accused murderer, a man who has been on the lam using the Times reporter’s identity as he fled the country.

They’re roughly the same age, both opportunists and storytellers, each cynical enough to use the other. That’s only enriched by casting pals Jonah Hill and James Franco as the co-dependent couple, actors and characters forcing themselves not to trust one another.

Equal parts sobering and chilling, “True Story” is about the ways journalists are willingly used to get the story. It is “Capote” with a commentary on journalistic ethics, but without the emotional heft.

Hill is Michael Finkel, whose high-flying career as a foreign correspondent is derailed when he conflates characters and events in a story of slavery in modern Africa. He retreats to Montana, to Jill (Felicity Jones), his indulgent but tough-minded significant other.

Then Christian Longo is captured in Mexico City. He was using Finkel’s name because he was on the run. He’s accused of killing his wife and children in Oregon. Finkel is intrigued, beguiled when he meets the quiet and charming Longo (Franco). Finkel still has an eye for the main chance, and this guy is gold. Longo is a fan (thus, the assumed name). And he’s willing to talk. To Finkel.

“I can’t tell you what really happened,” the accused killer purrs.

“I know what it’s like to avoid the truth.”

Indeed. They both have a feel for that.

Rupert Goold’s film plays up Franco’s sweetly seductive side and Hill’s talent for cold-bloodedness. Franco adds a touch of remoteness, and Hill a calculating undercurrent as these two spar over “the truth,” what the state might be able to prove and what Finkel might know that could turn the case one way or the other.

The ways the crime is discussed and the differing versions of reality range from heartbreaking to puzzling. Finkel comes off as willing to use everyone – an enterprising local reporter (Ethan Suplee), Longo, law enforcement, even Jill – to get a book out of this tragedy.

But despite Franco’s best efforts, Goold’s film (he co-wrote the script) does a poor job of misdirecting us as to Longo’s guilt. The reporter/convict dynamic doesn’t have enough layers to carry the film without some hint of mystery. Thus, the relationship between the two, chilling as it is, never rises much above “Capote Lite.”

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