By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — We still automatically associate Jonah Hill and James Franco with comedy, even though Hill has two Oscar nominations as best supporting actor for Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, both dramas, and Franco has a nomination as best actor (127 Hours), also a drama.
Yet all those early comedy credits somehow continue to define both busy actors, even as they take on roles that help them exhibit and widen their range.
Such is the case in the docudrama True Story, in which they co-star opposite each other as real-life characters who exist on or near the line between fact and fiction that might be described as the “credibility-free zone.”
Hill plays Michael Finkel, a New York Times investigative journalist who was disgraced and terminated by the Times when it was discovered that he had fabricated details in a cover story he wrote about African child slavery.
Unemployed and living in Montana with his wife, a university archivist played by Felicity Jones, he struggles with little or no success to get publications to give him assignments.
Then he discovers that Christian Longo, played by Franco, who has been captured while on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for murdering his wife and three children in Oregon, has been living under his (Finkel’s) name.
Curious and intrigued –- and sensing that there might be a scoop here that only he could have access to –- he begins visiting Longo in prison.
As we watch, we wonder just which of them is the master manipulator. Will the ultimate article be an exposé or a cover-up?
They bond over their common notoriety and mutual need and make a bargain: Longo will give Finkel the exclusive story in exchange for writing lessons. Longo is, it turns out, an admirer of Finkel’s work.
Debuting director Rupert Goold, who collaborated on the elusiveness-of-truth screenplay with David Kajganich, based on the memoir by Finkel, conjures what is basically a two-hander, with crucial scene after crucial scene of conversation between interviewer and interviewee caught in revealing closeups in what is a who’s-using-whom mystery wrapped in a battle for psychological dominance.
And although it’s not nail-bitingly suspenseful and rooting interest is nowhere to be found, it is at least cerebrally absorbing throughout.
Franco never quite nails Longo, although he’s at least adequate and the ambiguity being sought registers as just that. But he doesn’t disappear into his character to the same degree that Hill does. Hill is excellent –- again –- making Finkel about as lived-in a real-life character as you’re likely to see.
So we’ll interview 3 stars out of 4. In the final analysis, is the title, True Story, literal or ironic? Answer: both.