But it’s a true story.
The together-again casting of Jonah Hill as a disgraced journalist and James Franco as the heinous murder suspect the journo interrogates in hopes of a career resurrection should attract early audiences. But dramatic fireworks between these two never materializes.
The filmmakers, British stage director Rupert Goold and his co-writer David Kajganich, follow the lead of a true story into a thicket of snarled motivations, confusing situations and tepid confrontations that yield very little actual conflict.
The guts of the true story go like this: In February 2002 New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Hill), one of the paper’s top and most peripatetic journalists, was tossed out when it was discovered he had created a composite character in order to demonstrate the torment suffered by child victims in African labor markets.
So with his carer was over there, he slouches back to his Montana home and wife Jill (Felicity Jones).
Hey, wait a minute. Why does he live in New York and his wife in Montana? It’s never explained. Like so many ‘Hey, wait a minute’ moments in this movie.
Then — and here’s where reality really trumps fiction — he himself becomes the victim of a weird sort of identity theft. In Mexico, one Christian Longo, a man accused of murdering his wife and children, is captured while posing as — guess what? — Michael Finkel of the New York Times.
Really weird and there’s no explanation for that either.
However, sensing a career-reviving story and desperately wanting to make it happen, Michael visits Christian (Franco) in his Oregon jail. The movie never makes the connection but one can’t help thinking of Truman Capote’s interviews with two Kansas murderers that resulted in his classic non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood.”
Only in this instance, the single accused murderer implies he’s innocent yet cannot — he never says why — reveal all he knows about what happened that terrible night his wife and children died.
Meanwhile Michael has sold a book pitch and become almost more invested in Christian’s innocence than the man himself. Strangely, the film makes little of this. Nor does it see this conflict of interest as an even greater betrayal of the journalistic imperative of disinterest than his African subterfuge.
Instead Goold pumps up what action there is on screen as if “True Story” were a thriller while composer Marco Beltrami supplies a pulse-quickening score: Michael visits scenes of crimes. He interviews witnesses and in turn gets waylaid by a police detective he wants his “help” with the case. Cars prowl streets at night. People cast significant glances at one another, etc., etc.
Perhaps if there were more of a cat-and-mouse game between the scribe and his subject, the dynamics of their scenes together would resonate with greater force. As it is, a lethargy haunts these scenes, just a couple of white guys sitting around b.s.-ing rather than anything that zeroes in on the crux of the matter — did Christian murder his family?
Indeed a single and most unlikely confrontation (it never happened) between Christian and Michael’s wife Jill, who arrives at the jail unannounced one day, contains more drama than any of the scenes between Christian and Michael.
In the end, Michael is just a desperate guy struggling to resurrect his career and is shown, essentially, grasping at straws. But the film never quite portrays him that way until the very end when there is a suggestion that writing a self-serving book has come at a cost.
No one ever says what that cost is, however, nor does the film ever come to terms with its protagonist’s moral ambiguity. Michael Frankel, at least the Michael Frankel in the movie, never really gets to know the man whose story he means to write. Nor, and this is crucial, does he seem to know himself any better either.
Opens: April 17, 2015 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: New Regency, Plan B
Cast: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Robert John Burke, Gretchen Mol, Ethan Suplee
Director: Rupert Goold
Screenwriters: Rupert Goold, David Kajganich
Based on the book by: Michael Finkel
Producers: Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Anthony Katagas
Executive producers: Brad Pitt, Arnon Milchan
Director of photography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Production designer: Jeremy Hindle
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costume designer: Catherine Marie Thomas
Editors: Christopher Tellefsen, Nicolas De Toth
R rating, 99 minutes