A GOOD STORY trapped inside a bad movie, True Story is about two assholes. One, Michael Finkel, was a writer for the New York Times until he got caught making shit up for a story; the other, Christian Longo, was accused of murdering his wife and his three young children on the coast of Oregon. On the run, Longo used Finkel's name as an alias; on the outs, Finkel found out about Longo and decided to write a book about him.
Their relationship—a disgraced journalist interviewing an accused murderer, and vice versa—formed the basis for Finkel's book True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa, which, in turn, forms the basis for the True Story movie, directed by theater director Rupert Goold. Goold's background likely explains why the best parts of True Story feel like a stage production: Finkel and Longo, sitting at a table, neither particularly trustworthy, both figuring out what they have to gain from the other.
The worst parts of True Story are the rest, which seem designed to undermine any emotional or intellectual engagement and are riddled with sappy, Instagram-lensed flashbacks and melodramatic stings that'd be more at home on the CW. Done well, there can be a sleazy, skeevy appeal to true crime; done poorly, those same stories are little more than an excuse to leer at others' misfortune. Neither Goold nor his actors seem sure where that line is.
Speaking of those actors: While we get a fair amount of Felicity Jones, as Finkel's wife, wringing her hands over her husband's bromance with an accused killer, we get far more of real-life pals Jonah Hill and James Franco, who play Finkel and Longo, respectively. Anyone who's seen these guys' best acting work—Hill in Moneyball and The Wolf of Wall Street, Franco in Pineapple Express and Spring Breakers—knows they can act. But their casting here can't help but feel like a stunt: It's hard to take a real-life crime story seriously if, whenever Franco and Hill are in the same scene, you keep wondering when that giant-dicked demon from This Is the End is going to show up.