British director Rupert Goold's debut feature is a too-tasteful movie about a deeply unsavory subject: In 2002, ambitious and prolific New York Times reporter Michael Finkel -- here played by Jonah Hill -- was fired for bending the facts in a Times magazine cover story about slave trading in modern-day Africa. As we see in the movie, he flies back to his home base in Montana in shame, struggling to rebuild his reputation. Then he learns that his name has been "stolen" by an Oregon man who’s just been arrested on suspicion of murdering his wife and three small children. Finkel meets with the man, creepy charmer Christian Longo (James Franco), who fawns over his writing and makes an enticing offer: He claims he can prove his innocence and will tell his story exclusively to Finkel. Finkel takes the bait and -- bet you didn’t see this coming -- learns more about his own dark side as he delves into Longo’s.
Especially for a movie that springs from a horrific and grisly crime, True Story feels undershaped and indistinct; it’s too dispassionate to be genuinely chilly. The focus is on the snake and snake-charmer interplay between Longo and Finkel, but not even that has the right degree of heft. The actors strive, with white-knuckle determination, to make the damn thing work. Even if we don’t know how Finkel could buy so willingly into Longo’s bill of goods, Hill -- with his intent stare, the look of a man whose nerve endings have been frayed to bits -- somehow makes us believe in the man’s psychic suffering. But what to do about Franco? He’s a gifted, hardworking actor; the problem is that all of his work shows