Like the Michael Finkel memoir on which it is based, the Rupert Goold film "True Story" does a lot of its work with its tongue-in-cheek title.
The real fallen journalist Finkel (played on screen by Jonah Hill) lost his job after fabricating facts for his 2001 "New York Times Magazine" story, "Is Youssouf Malé a Slave?" But Finkel got a second chance at journalistic glory when accused killer Christian Longo (James Franco) stole his identity while on the run in Cancún, Mexico.
In "True Story," Longo's implicit invitation soon firms up, allowing Finkel exclusive jailhouse access and yielding the promise of a true-crime story sure to nab a book deal. So begins a pen-pal correspondence and series of interviews with an unusual quid pro quo. Hoping he'll uncover Longo's innocence, Finkel agrees to give the convict co-writer status (and writing lessons) in exchange for a true-story account of how his wife and three children ended up brutally murdered. Finkel's self-deluded credulousness -- despite his assertion, "I don't presume anything anymore" -- winds up being the least convincing element of this "Story," but with his journalistic bona fides so deeply diminished, his wrongheadedness seems only to snowball.
Writer-director Goold and co-writer David Kajganich construct a thematic hall of mirrors around the characters who share the name "Mike Finkel": both arrogant and self-serving, each feeling his life depends on how convincingly he tells a story. The compulsive need to seduce with words, to shape a story to satisfy some higher or lower purpose unites these men in a sick pas de deux, a co-dependence fed by friendly, even flirtatious mutual flattery.
Goold and his actors show they're attuned to these ironies, enough to keep "True Story" percolating without much incident. Adjusting the heat behind his eyes between charming warmth and stony chill, Franco paints a wholly convincing portrait of narcissistic personality disorder. Entering more heavy territory than his Oscar-nominated turns in "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "Moneyball," Jonah Hill strains against his limitations (just how seriously can one take that face?) but does a decent job of holding up his miscast end. Felicity Jones, as Finkel's wife, escapes standing around the house and looking fretful in a couple of entertainingly high-tension, if unlikely, scenes with Franco.
One could wish for an even less forgiving portrait of Finkel, but by the damning closing titles, "True Story" has productively made its audience yet more skeptical of so-called truth in the modern media age.
Rated R for language and some disturbing material. One hour, 40 minutes.