“…ultimately disappointing to watch…”
True Story is about New York Times journalist Mike Finkel (played by Jonah Hill), who loses his job and then discovers that a convicted murderer (Christian Longo, played by James Franco) was using his name as an alias before he was captured. What follows is a fairly lackluster account of Mike Finkel writing his book about Christian entitled True Crime. Unfortunately, my review will probably have spoilers, but the movie is based off of a real life incident anyway. However, if you would like to see the movie yourself to go into it with fresh eyes, then you can scroll to the bottom of the page to see my rating.
Spoilers from here on out.
The biggest thing that stuck out to me about True Story is the fact that the movie completely glossed over the time frame that the story takes place in. We see Mike go and visit Christian, and then in the next scene he is back to visit Christian but from dialogue we learn that it is two months later. Absolutely nothing changed in those two months, so we had no indication of time actually passing. Honestly, if you disregard the dialogue, it looks like the movie takes place over the span of a week. The reason this bothers me so much is because by glossing over time shifts, the movie glosses over build up to problems happening, and instead the problems are sprung onto the viewer without notice. This is made apparent in multiple scenes, like Mike being called into the New York Times office to be fired, and even smaller things like Mike’s girlfriend (?) going to visit Christian. I don’t need a movie to hold my hand, but it would have been nice to get a little hint that the story was evolving instead of getting these random flashes of new shit happening. The next problem I have with the movie is the characters. Every single character in True Story is like a bizarre version of what people are actually like, if that makes sense. It seems to me that no one is normal, just an exaggerated archetype that fits the narrative. And the movie does not have many characters, so this makes it all the more painfully apparent. I’m going to focus on the “main” characters of True Story for this review, for time’s sake. First of all, the character of Mike Finkel felt very fluid, in the sense that he had no real footing in any one camp of emotion. Most of the time he would just be there, staring intently and then all of a sudden there would be an outburst, and then he would be back to normal. It was almost like he was only going through the motions and not actually invested in his actions. Just a reminder, this is talking specifically about the characters and how they were written, I will talk about their portrayals later. Mike Finkel also seemed thoroughly confused by everything, and it was never made clear why. It was almost like he was constantly playing catch-up with every other character just to figure out what was happening. For example, at the beginning of the movie when he is confronted about his Africa piece, he seems absolutely stunned that he would be accused of such a thing. It isn’t until later that he says he did it intentionally, but even then his mannerisms still make him seemed surprised by it. The movie also had an issue with hinting at character development, and then leaving you with no payoff. Case in point, the character of Christian Longo. The way James Franco portrayed Christian Longo was very reserved, yet calculated. It seemed that he was constantly outsmarting Mike when the two would visit. We get a hint at this when during Christian’s trial, he uses a couple of phrases that Mike taught him. But then that’s it. The entire character build up was to him using two phrases, and he was still convicted of murder. And then he winks at Mike like this was all part of his plan. Really? Did you plan on being convicted of murder and sentenced to death? Because if so, you sure played me like a fiddle. There was also this extremely weird underlying connection between Mike and Christian that was only hinted at. The main piece of evidence for that being the notebook drawings. Mike even points out that Christian drew exactly the same thing on his piece of paper that Mike drew in his notebook (which I assume no one else has seen) but then he seems to forget that. What the fuck? How did Christian know that Mike drew those things? How did Christian replicate the exact placement and content of Mike’s drawings? Why was this then glossed over and never talked about? And then later on Christian calls up Mike’s girlfriend and there is this weird scene where Jill (Mike’s girlfriend) walks around the house very slowly while talking on the phone. This seems to deliberately set up the fact that the house was being watched, and that was that. There was no instance of the house being watched, there was absolutely no payoff to that scene, it just ended. There was also a strange sequence in that scene where Jill was staring at all of the notes Christian had written while talking on the phone with him, and then the camera would cut to closeups of Christian’s hands. Again, I thought this would be significant later, but it wasn’t at all. Last but not least, there are many instances where Jill is being presented in scenes, even though she has nothing to do with the story. A couple of examples are: Showing Jill in the bath, Showing Jill play the piano while Mike is typing on the computer (which I guess was to show some parallel, but it completely flew over my head), and finally Jill going to visit Christian at his prison. That last one was the weirdest because it came out of literally nowhere. Jill just shows up and tells Christian about this dude who murdered his family and then wrote an opera. Again, I fail to see the comparison this was trying to make and it felt very out of place. It was like halfway through the movie they decided to make Jill a main character.
The acting in True Story only accentuated the fact that the characters weren’t very well written. I’m not sure if all of the character flaws I mentioned before were only because of the actors, but it did seem that the movie simplified a lot of the scenes. Anyway, all of the character flaws that I did mention, I am kind of going to reiterate here because they are also flaws with the actors. Jonah Hill seemed like angry Jonah Hill in this movie. Again, he had very little depth as a character and seemed to react way over the top. James Franco did a fairly good job at playing a very reserved criminal, who may just be hiding something from the audience, but again that wasn’t fleshed out so his acting was also pretty two dimensional. He just seemed like a regular guy. He didn’t seemed to be bothered by anything that was said or done, and even scenes where he was meant to be sad (I guess) the only thing that changed was he held his head in his hands. I want to top it off by saying there were also weird camera shots in the movie. Like I mentioned before, a couple of those are the keyboard/piano shot, and the close up of Christian’s hand. Honestly, the biggest twist in the movie for me was that it was a true story (no pun intended). I’m not sure what the fuck happened, because the real Mike Finkel really wrote the book, and then the book was made into this movie. In the movie, Mike Finkel is touted as being a great writer, but if this movie is any indication then it may just be a case of him stroking his own ego. I just want to point out that I don’t mean any harm with what I say, hell I’m just some asshole who types at his computer after watching movies. Mike Finkel could be a wonderful guy, and a fantastic writer. For all I know, this movie could have been butchered by the screenwriting process, or even the directing. It just seems odd to me that Mike Finkel would let this happen to his story, because the movie made it seem like he cared about it deeply.
Overall, True Story was ultimately disappointing to watch because it had no payoff. That’s not to say it wasn’t an alright crime thriller, it’s just saying that if you watch the movie you will be left feeling unfulfilled.
I give True Story a C