Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sundance ’15: True Story

Who is the bigger user, the disgraced journalist or the alleged family murderer? It is a close call, but the “journalist” has no competition when it comes to willful self-deception. Mike Finkel’s strange and problematic relationship with Christian Longo provides the dramatic grist for British theater Rupert Goold’s ripped-from-the-tell-alls feature debut, True Story (trailer here), which screens during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.

For a while, Finkel was the golden boy at the New York Times, scoring numerous Sunday magazine covers. Then he was busted for “compositing” victims somewhat haphazardly in a human trafficking story. At least Longo was still a fan. While on the lam, he used Finkel’s name as an alias. Intrigued by the connection, the real Finkel pays a jail house visit to the man accused of killing his wife and three children. Recognizing a story that could salvage his career, Finkel agrees to co-author a book with Longo. Of course, he assumes it will be exculpatory, but early trial developments leave him feeling confused and betrayed.

Clearly, this is not a film looking to rehabilitate the NYT’s scandal-plagued image. Gretchen Mol plays Finkel’s editor as an ice cold CYAing Machiavellian, which might be the truest aspect of True Story. The ironic postscript also serves as a final middle finger to the Gray Lady. However, Goold and co-screenwriter David Kajganich are not trying to do any favors for Finkel or Longo either. In all honesty, everyone comes out of it looking badly, but that makes it fascinating to watch.

Christian Longo, the media savvy sociopath, just might be the role James Franco was born to play. He is so frighteningly convincing turning on the charm and manipulating everyone around him, it makes you wonder. Although, it is a far less showy role, Jonah Hill’s Finkel is also believably slow on the uptake (so much so, it also makes you wonder). Mol is suitably severe, but True Story is not a great vehicle for actresses, completely wasting Felicity Jones as Finkel’s more guarded but nearly personality-less girlfriend.

Franco and Hill’s scenes together have fair degree of crackle, but the suspense never really rises above room temperature. Frankly, there are no miscarriages of justice in True Story, unless you count the Times getting off easy after yet another journalistic scandal. Yet, it is strangely refreshing to see a film that is not out to gin up cheap outrage. Recommended for those who appreciate adult drama, True Story screens again this Thursday (1/29) and Saturday (1/31) in Park City and Sunday (2/1) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance.