We all know that James Franco and Jonah Hill make a solid duo. Their comedies are irreverent and on key, poking fun at everything from pop culture, social habits, and sexuality in a smartphone society. But perhaps most effectively they are very, very good at poking at themselves, as anyone with a sense of humor can tell from the near tour de force comedy "This Is The End." Together they make a kind of Abbott & Costello for our century with Franco as the blissed out straight-man and Hill as a jittery and sloppy jokester.
Here, James Franco plays Christian Longo, a supposedly suburban family man who suddenly strangles his wife and two kids and tries to go off the grid. Jonah Hill is Mike Finkel, a dedicated but erring journalist who works for The New York Times, and who made a terminal botch on a cover story.
The film starts out quite compellingly, with a salty suitcase containing a small child and a solitary man (Longo) at a Mexican cathedral lighting a candle. Such a prologue is powerful and has accents of recent noir thrillers like "Prisoners" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley."
The authorities nab Longo who tells them that he is the Times writer Mike Finkel.
Finkel gets word of this and gets a case of the willies, but he also has the idea for a story.
Longo agrees to meet with Finkel in prison.
When they first see each other there is little drama. Longo is all but silent, when he does speak he is dry and robotic. "I follow your writing," says Longo, "I can tell you the truth."
This could be heady stuff, given the chemistry between the two actors. But oddly here, the juice is absent. Franco seems soporific and I have to admit, a bit drugged. Then his eyes flash for a brief moment in the now trademark expression that Franco has made famous.
Oh, those laughing brown eyes!
It is near impossible to get past James Franco as James Franco.
Jonah Hill is so awkward and consciously "serious" that there is little room for any real spirit or spontaneity as might occur in such a circumstance. A main stumble is that the story itself doesn't allow them to give much to each other as characters. With only gestures, slow deliberate motions, and facial glares aplenty, this is less a history of an eerie friendship than a study in minimalism. The most Franco does is stare either dreamily or threateningly with little in between. Whether it is "I killed them" or "I think I did," becomes of little consequence. What makes these characters stay together, or be interesting?
We are given precious little to draw upon. We do get some provocative and very vivid illustrations by Longo, arguably the best montage in the film. But to what end?
Whenever Hill's character is frustrated, he hits the wall and runs into a bathroom to scream. Such chewing of scenery runs close to a TV movie.
The film slips back and forth so much with Longo's guilt in question that it becomes a process in narrative rather than a film. Then it abruptly shifts to Finkel's wife (Felicity Jones).
Bennett Miller had similar material to work with in his 2005 version of "Capote" about Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, a hybrid of both an account and a personal memoir of his attraction to a Perry Smith, a troubled young man who murdered a Kansas family. "True Story" is such a stark by-product of that film and genre, that although conceptually interesting, the actors merely appear to be giving a shadow play of more rotund literary legends.
The first time we see that Winter landscape, the jagged trees and the stainless steel table under the fluorescents, we already know who is going to wink.
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