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'True Story' review: James Franco, Jonah Hill lack complexity in grandiose murder tale

James Franco appears in a scene from

James Franco appears in a scene from "True Story." Photo Credit: AP / Mary Cybulski

PLOT

A disgraced reporter sees his salvation in the story of an alleged mass murderer. Rated R (language and some disturbing material).

BOTTOM LINE

Lightweight script doesn't help a grandiose premise.

CAST

Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Robert John Burke

LENGTH

1:40

Journalists and murderers, to borrow from Janet Malcolm, have made for some magnificently conflicted stories, among them "In Cold Blood," "The Executioner's Song" and even Joe McGinniss' "Fatal Vision," for all the revisionist heat it's taken over the years. And it's obvious that writer-director Rupert Goold was looking for a place in that lineup with "True Story," about the relationship between disgraced New York Times Magazine writer Mike Finkel and Christian Longo, who was sentenced to death in 2003 for killing his wife and three children.

But there's a flaw in the DNA of Goold's project (based on Finkel's memoir) because neither Finkel nor Longo -- at least as they are portrayed by Jonah Hill and James Franco, respectively -- possesses anything close to the necessary complexity or tragic nature to make their story more than a pedestrian bromance between losers.

Finkel is a highly successful Times writer who creates a "composite" character based on abused youth he's interviewed in Africa, is found out, and fired. Brooding back home in Montana, he learns that Longo -- sought by Oregon authorities for that quadruple homicide -- was passing himself off as Mike Finkel when he was arrested in Mexico. Finkel, having an identity crisis anyway, finds major significance in Longo's impersonation. The viewers may feel otherwise.

Redemption tales are always commercially viable; so are homicidal maniacs. But Goold spends so much time mining for deep meaning in the parallels between Longo and Finkel that a collapse is inevitable. Neither Hill nor Franco brings much emotional depth to his character. And while Longo leads Finkel on, with promises of the "true" story and exclusive insights into the crime, there is a great deal of time spent in expressionistic flashbacks to Longo's dead family, and scenes of Finkel's girlfriend (a terrific Felicity Jones) fretting about Longo. What one detects, beneath Marco Beltrami's score is the sound of wheels, spinning wildly.

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