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Jonah Hill, left, plays disgraced journalist Michael Finkel, who, after being caught fabricating a story, struck a peculiar friendship with convicted killer Christian Longo, played by James Franco.

Barry Wetcher

2 out of 4 stars

Written by
Rupert Goold and David Kajganich
Directed by
Rupert Goold
Starring
Jonah Hill, James Franco and Felicity Jones
Classification
14A
Country
USA
Language
English

The title's got a provocative hook. As pedants will tell you, there's no such thing as a "true story," because all narratives take shortcuts. At the same time, not all versions of the facts are equally worthy, as the film True Story demonstrates. This mannered, muddled drama about journalistic lapses and worse, crimes, stars comic buddies Jonah Hill and James Franco (This is the End) in a decidedly unfunny story.

The true story behind True Story goes something like this: In late 2001, Michael Finkel, a freelance writer under contract with The New York Times Magazine published a story called Is Youssouf Malé a Slave? about a Malian adolescent who had sold himself into service on a cocoa farm on the Ivory Coast. The story, which questioned claims of modern slavery, implied that Save the Children Canada, one of the organizations that helped the boy return home, had exaggerated Youssouf's situation. The organization called Finkel on his dishonesty: "Youssouf" was a composite character, and Finkel had fabricated many other details in the story. In February, 2002, the Times ran a six-paragraph apology and ended its contract with him as a contributing writer.

Then comes the weird part. Shortly before the apology ran, Finkel received a call from another reporter informing him that a man named Christian Longo, who was on the FBI's most wanted list for the strangulation and drowning of his wife and three children, had been arrested in Mexico using Finkel's name and identity. The real Michael Finkel, who later compared the event as "divine intervention" and like a lottery win, believed that here was his chance for redemption. (Presumably doing volunteer work for Save the Children would have been too banal.) Finkel wrote a letter soliciting an interview with Longo, describing himself as perversely honoured by being impersonated, and noting, with pathos: "At the same time you were using my name, I lost my own."

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The two men struck up a peculiar friendship. Longo said he had taken Finkel's identity because he was a fan of the writer's globe-hopping stories. He agreed to give him an exclusive about the murder in exchange for some writing lessons. Finkel got a book deal. In his 2005 account of that experience, True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, the author frankly identifies his own career embarrassment with the murderer's notoriety ("The flawed parts of my character – the runaway egotism, the capacity to deceive – were mirrored in him").

By now the scribbler-and-the-killer genre is a familiar laboratory of journalistic ethics, a testing ground for the greatest writers: Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song, Joe McGinniss's Fatal Vision and Janet Malcolm's 1990 indictment of McGinniss's book, The Journalist and the Murderer, which began with the hyperbolic declaration: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible."

Much of Finkel's memoir falls into the "full-of-himself" category. The film version, by English theatre director, Rupert Goold, is somewhat worse. Following the template of Bennett Miller's Capote, the movie is preciously crafted (it opens with a teddy bear falling in slow motion into a suitcase, which contains the curled-up body of a three-year-old girl) but ultimately, a puffed-up attempt at a psychological thriller that offers no insight into Longo's motives. Goold's template here is not a true crime story, but a film noir, with Franco cast in the seductive inscrutable femme fatale role. Several scenes consist simply of the two actors talking across a jailhouse table, with Hill as the schlubby, angry interrogator, while Franco, in his orange jumpsuit, counters with seductive soft-eyed gazes and head-tilted pleas for understanding. As an acting exercise, this psychological contest of the creeps is moderately compelling because the actors push the erotic subtext: You could easily imagine Hill and Franco in a parody version, with Franco, like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, crossing and uncrossing his legs to each probing question.

There's a real woman in the midst of this morbid bromance, Finkel's wife, Jill (in real life, they weren't married at the time). She's played by English actress, Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything, The Invisible Woman), who is so diminutive by Hill's side that she looks like his child bride. Jill delivers the truth-telling speech when she arranges to visit Longo in jail (an event that never happened in real life). Staring down the killer who has psychologically seduced her husband, she compares Longo to the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, who brutally murdered his wife and her lover: Though she loves the music, she can never forgive the composer.

The speech typifies everything wrong with the movie's version of a true story, in that it's both pretentious and inapt. Longo was only famous for killing his family, not for creating anything of value – unless you include the spin-off book and movie, which benefited some people otherwise unaffected by the horrific crimes.

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