Hill, Franco Fizzle In Lackluster "True Story"

Earnestness is a strange look on Jonah Hill. It worked in supporting roles in 2011’s “Moneyball” and 2013’s “The Wolf Of Wall Street.” But the jump to dramatic lead in a project without a note of levity is big one, and Hill isn’t the conduit of empathy that true crime drama “True Story” requires him to be. Nor is the material memorable enough to separate its star from the caustic oaf persona he’s cultivated in modern comedy classics “Superbad” and “This Is The End,” the latter of which saw Hill billed as himself.

In the actor’s defense, few performers successfully pivot into dramatic lead in one fell swoop. No, “True Story” is an inevitable growing pain, perhaps the first of many.

The same might be said of co-star James Franco, except that Franco has already successfully darted from superhero pic (“Spider-Man”) to comedy (“Pineapple Express”) to avant-garde drama (“Spring Breakers”) and back again, suffering his acting adolescence in front of millions. Franco has earned his turn here as a family man turned murderer. And even if it’s just as ill fitting as Hill’s – and it might be – Franco has the experience to sell it.

Jonah Hill stars as real-life disgraced New York Times journalist Michael Finkel. The picture opens with the reporter fudging a story on the African slave trade, subsequently losing his job. Meanwhile, husband and father of three Christian Longo (Franco) is on the lam in Mexico, having left his family behind. In suitcases. At the bottom of the Pacific.

Once captured, Longo claims that he’s Mike Finkel with the New York Times. The duo’s fate is forever intertwined.

Finkel’s reasons for pursuing a friendship with the imprisoned Longo are clear – equal parts curiosity, empathy, and redemption play – but their actual friendship isn’t. Writer-director Rupert Goold paints the relationship almost like an unlikely bromance, but beyond a shared love of writing, we never see the two connect on any meaningful level.

More confusing still is Felicity Jones’ role as Finkel’s girlfriend, whose inclusion falls between questionable and pointless. Her one big scene – a confrontation with Longo – is undoubtedly a fabrication, while her character’s rapport with Finkel is never insightful. She’s just simply there, not a meaningful presence in her own right and failing to bring anything interesting out of her partner.

Goold’s no-frills script in almost admirable in its sparseness, except that his embellishments are obvious, all in search of a catharsis that doesn’t quite come.

Since “True Story” is about its own source material – Finkel’s book of the same name – it’s understandable that Goold would melt the story down to its basics. But the result is so free of personality that Hill and Franco end up marooned on miscast island, unable to wring anything interesting from ordinary dialogue and predictable story beats.

The only fingerprint the film leaves is the one that adorns its one-sheet.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Mediocre)

Release Date: April 17, 2015
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Rupert Goold
Screenwriter: Rupert Goold
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones
MPAA Rating: R (for language and some disturbing material)