Monday, April 13, 2015

James Franco and Jonah Hill shine in Rupert Goold's deceptive and disturbing TRUE STORY

James Franco and Jonah Hill are hardly neophytes where the question of celebrity, notoriety and identity are concerned. Both these actors (along with several others) handled these subjects with fine comic flair in This Is The End (Mr. Franco explores this slate in almost every movie he acts in or directs), and now they're back at it in a deadly serious, deeply disturbing film called TRUE STORY -- based on, yes, exactly that. As written and directed by relative newcomer Rupert Goold, the result is one of the most quiet and creepily effective tales of murder, identity, sanity, celebrity and justice that you will have seen. What is most disturbing here is that the filmmaker and his cast, together with the story itself, offer us no easy out regarding what happened and why. We know, but what we know only makes everything all the more obscure and somehow frightening.

Mr. Goold, shown at right, comes from the British stage and television, where he directed and adapted (for the latter's Hollow Crown series) Shakespeare's Richard II, in which Ben Whishaw gave perhaps the definitive performance so far of that shallow, sad, confused and finally radiant monarch. From there, Goold seems to have gone directly to this filmed project, on which his work is exemplary.

As is that of Misters Franco and Hill. These two actors jive so well together that it seems their ability to play comedy is equalled, even bettered, by their skill at realistic, moment-to-moment drama in which we hang on every subtle expres-sion, every murmured word.

The story is that of yet another journalist, in this case a fellow named Michael Finkel (played by Hill, below), who was caught falsifying one of his stories written for The New York Times and then summarily fired from the newspaper. Around the same time, Christian Longo (Franco, shown at left), a fellow on the run and suspected of killing his wife and children, used Finkel's name as an alias and for a short time posed as the journalist.

How these two meet, agree to work with/use each other, and eventually become, well, "close," makes up the meat of the movie, and a stranger, more disturbing meal you're not likely to have digested. This is one hell of an unsettling tale.

Much of the reason for the film's ability to disconcert us is that, as it moves quietly along, so much of the facts -- about the cases of both men -- remain in question. Finkel's guilt can somewhat be attributed to his trying so hard to cover an important story, while in Longo's case -- his guilt, as well as what really happened -- seems very possibly to be up for grabs.

Can we believe what we see and hear? Is identity as slippery as it appears here? In the instance of Mr. Franco and his supremely subtle and unnerving performance, this is all important.

Mr. Goold does a superb job of keeping us off balance and even rooting, at times, for both men. And the actors themselves do a masterful job, particularly Mr. Franco, of making us question what initially passes for an open-and-shut case. The more we learn, the odder things become. Franco uses his easy ability to charm, while remaining inscrutable, to keep us ever off-balance

This is mostly a "men" movie: The women's roles -- though acted by excellent performers like Felicity Jones (above) as Finkel's wife and Gretchen Mol as his boss at The New York Times -- are but cursory. It's that relationship between the two men, and theirs to the world outside, that counts for all.

True Story also brings to the fore ideas about character, the meaning of insanity, and the question of if and how a man -- who has lead a fairly standard and relatively decent life up until the "event" -- can simply go full-throttle crazy. Was the seed of insanity always present? Is it in each of us? If so, what might it take to call it into being?

The ironies present here are huge and plenty, but the movie never stops to underscore them. They simply keep popping out from the events and characters. By the finale -- and right through into the end credits that explain what followed -- you will question everything from journalism to friendship, truth and what it means to be criminally insane. In fact, the most ironic thing about True Story is probably its title.

From Fox Searchlight and running 100 riveting minutes, the movie opens this Friday in New York City (in half a dozen theaters), and probably elsewhere, too. As I post this, however, the Fox Searchlight web site for the film is not particularly helpful in indicating where else across the country it will be playing.

No comments: