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Jonah Hill and James Franco have a heart-to-heart in county jail in True Story.

You may be surprised to learn that True Story is only the second serious collaboration between James Franco and Jonah Hill, two actors who have spent much of their time making raunchy comedies for Judd Apatow and his stable of directors. You may be even more surprised to find out that this film is a straightforward drama based on the experiences of a real-life journalist. However, if you’re surprised to discover that they’re really good here, you haven’t been paying attention.

Based on Michael Finkel’s memoir, the movie stars Hill as Mike, a rising investigative reporter at the New York Times until he’s summarily fired after his editors discover he exaggerated the atrocities in a story about African slave labor. Mike’s wondering how to resurrect his career when a comeback opportunity seemingly falls into his lap — a man named Christian Longo (Franco) has been arrested for murdering his wife and three small children in Oregon, and he was found using Mike’s identity while running from the law. Mike decides he needs to meet Chris in prison.

The reason to see this film is the cat-and-mouse game between Hill and Franco. Director/co-writer Rupert Goold is a first-time filmmaker coming from British theater, and he’s content to let the camera record his actors working. At first, Mike finds it hard to believe that this soft-spoken, articulate, unfailingly polite man could be capable of zipping up his 2-year-old daughter in a suitcase and throwing her into the river while she’s still alive. Franco lets a note of off-putting slacker superiority creep into Chris’ charm — that calm look that steals into his eyes when Mike reveals something he’s found out, is it the serenity of an innocent man who has faith in the system or the complacency of a violent psychopath? This actor has taken flak for his bizarre career choices, but when he gets his teeth into a role, he can be really good. Opposite him in the less flashy part, Hill is terrific as a reporter who gradually realizes how his first impressions about his subject went all wrong.

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Sadly, the movie stumbles whenever it’s not focusing on its two stars’ performances. We learn little about what Mike derives from this experience as a journalist or a person, and the recurring bit where he needs to use an inhaler for his asthma whenever he’s stressed is a hackneyed touch. A scene where Mike’s wife (Felicity Jones) goes to visit Chris in prison is only saved from disaster by Jones’ quietly determined work. (She relates the story of the 16th-century composer Carlo Gesualdo, and if you know your classical music history, you’ll appreciate the hell out of the reference.) Perhaps True Story should have been a stage play, but this low-budget exercise is a chance to savor the abilities of its well-known stars.

 

[box_info]True Story
Starring Jonah Hill and James Franco. Directed by Rupert Goold. Written by Rupert Goold and David Kajganich, based on Michael Finkel’s memoir. Rated R.[/box_info]

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