Close-Ups: The Movie
Starring: Jonah Hill, James Franco
Review written by Robert D. Patrick
The gossamer web that director Rupert Goold weaves is more of the plastic bag, Halloween variety. Fake, difficult to pull apart, and without a genuine aesthetic. True Story is a film about two desperate men interrogating one another by spitting venom through their incisors. It’s a film that prides itself on the weight of a clock’s hand, the serpentine reverberation of a violent truth. Each discourse is supposed to feel eyebrow straining. Yet, even with the pockets of forehead sweat and the deliberately suspicious head tilts, none of the scenes feel wrought with tension. True Story comes across as a screen test more than an actual film. A room where sheets of dialogue are held by tired thumbs and inquisitive eyes. By the end of Goold’s opus, you get the impression that the actors are still attempting to understand the characters.
Based on a prolonged, tenuous relationship between former New York Times journalist Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) and accused killer Christian Longo (James Franco), True Story relies on its dubious suspense to build a cage of anxiety. Longo, suspected of murdering his family, entrenches himself in a murky correspondence with Finkel, the formerly celebrated writer. The two men spend most of the film’s subsequent time cross-examining one another, peeling back the layers and counting the rings. Who is manipulating who? It’s a proud pirouette of words that screenwriter David Kajganich wants us to buy into. Instead, the volleys of questions and the desk-slamming frustration builds to an empty whimper.
James Franco’s grizzled, bedraggled version of Longo is muted by murmurs and glassy-eyed stares. The actor doesn’t entrance the viewer with mystery so much as he does with boredom. Each monotone syllable falls like a stack of bricks to the floor, going nowhere. Franco’s work is typically good, but here he simply shows up only to dig his cheek into his folded hands. Given, Kajganich’s script doesn’t give him much to work with, but there is still a sense of unintentional vacuity within his frame that is glaring. Meanwhile, Jonah Hill’s eyes dart, up and down, like the waves of an EKG, as he attempts to read Franco’s character. Much of the actor’s screen time is spent glowering, mouth ajar.
The most conspicuous problem, though, is with Goold’s clunky direction. The camera zooms, recklessly, into the faces of the actors every other scene. Choking close-ups, to the point of practically headbutting Hill and Franco, become the weapon of choice. This is claustrophobic on a whole other level. Goold pressurizes the action the only way he knows how: by breaking the lens.
Not only does the acting and direction suffer, but the film, itself, is glacial beyond comprehension. Imagine poking a deflated balloon with a stick – that’s basically how flaccid and flat this thing is. Primal Fear: Ambien Edition could be its working title.