Seeing James Franco and Jonah Hill's names attached to a film typically means you're sitting down for a viewing of the latest stoner bromance from the Apatow troupe of comedy, so it's probably a bit surprising that their latest, "True Story," is actually an earnest drama exploring the murky, elastic nature of journalistic truthiness. Knowing that, it might surprise you even more to learn that their performances are not the problem in writer-director Rupert Goold's intriguing but curiously lifeless morality play, which floats some interesting ideas but ultimately doesn't do much with them.
Hill plays Michael Finkel, a journalist for The New York Times Magazine whose rising career is cut short after it's revealed that he fabricated certain details of his recent exposé about child slavery in Africa, passing off a composite character as an actual person. He's promptly let go from the paper amid a flurry of shame and disgrace. With the stigma of being a liar now attached to him, he finds himself a pariah in the journalism world and struggles to find work.
It's at this particularly low point that Finkel learns about a man named Christian Longo (Franco). Accused of murdering his wife and three young children, Longo was using Finkel's name as an alias before being apprehended in Mexico by the FBI. Finkel decides to visit Longo at the Oregon prison where he's being held, as much out of sheer curiosity as out of the sense that it might make a good story and could become a path to earn back the respect he foolishly squandered. During their meeting, Longo implies his innocence but isn't willing to divulge his story. At least not yet. He claims to be an admirer of Finkel's work, and suggests that they make a bargain: Longo will speak only to him, but in exchange he requests the writer's assurance that he'll refrain from publishing anything he learns until after the conclusion of the trial. Longo also requests that Finkel give him writing lessons.
The remainder of the film focuses on the twisty relationship between these two men as they continue to meet and gradually strike up a friendship of sorts. In time, Finkel begins to look at the two as mirrors of one another, and both journalist and subject are skilled in bending and stretching the truth to better suit their narrative. Finkel, for all his trouble, manages to land himself a book deal based on his continued conversations with Longo. Goold and co-writer David Kajganich layer on the similarities, conflating the two men and seemingly condemning them equal measure by suggesting that their sins are more or less the same, which is, frankly, nutty and overly simplistic.
Franco and Hill each deliver strong performances, though it's odd to see them paired together and not have the dialogue descend into the realm of dick and fart jokes. Franco's projects a sleepy-eyed menace that suits the character, even if it negates Goold's attempts to cast a bit of doubt as to whether or not Longo is truly guilty. Hill plays Finkel as cocky and kind of a dick, but a completely convincing one. Felicity Jones is also on hand as Finkel's wife, Jill, who grows to be the film's moral compass. At one point Jill visits Longo on her own, stopping by to give her own frank appraisal of his particular failings as a non-sociopathic human being. Though it's possible these visits actually happened, they feel like the contrived invention of a screenwriter looking to give the talented actress a juicy moment to make up for stranding her in the "worried girlfriend" role the remainder of the time.
"True Story" is the feature debut for Goold, who brings with him a reputation as an accomplished British stage director. He brings a restrained style to the story, and though the film avoids feeling stagey, the pacing does occasionally drag, particularly in the middle act. His script is based on Michael Finkel's own memoir, "True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa," which as the title suggests, it the writer's self-described atonement for allowing himself to be taken in by Longo's lies and being blinded by the desire to further his own career. It's a compelling story, and there's an interesting movie to be mined from the material, but it doesn't quite come together.
The film's ethical quandaries recall 2003's "Shattered Glass," another (much stronger) study of a journalist of questionable moral character. As is, it probably could have used more of its characters' awareness that sometimes it takes skirting the facts to weave a truly gripping yarn.