Jonah Hill and James Franco have costarred in one previous movie together: This Is The End, a self-kidding apocalyptic comedy where they played ridiculous versions of themselves. Given their mutual connections to Judd Apatow and company, it seems like they should have shared the screen more often; maybe they haven’t because they both, at times, seem to want to get into each other’s lanes. Post-Freaks and Geeks Franco was largely a serious actor; he jumped back into comedy with Pineapple Express back in 2008. Hill, meanwhile, started out in broad comedies before working with Bennett Miller, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and (next year) the Coen Brothers, scoring two Oscar nominations in the meantime. Now the pair meet again under vastly different circumstances: True Story, opening this weekend, offers a serious lead role for Hill (his two nominations were both in the supporting category) and, well, probably just something Franco did during lunch breaks filming adaptations of William Faulkner and lost John Kennedy Toole manuscripts, or whatever it is he works on during between studio pictures.
Hill plays Mike Finkel, a real-life New York Times Magazine writer fired over fabrications he made to goose a story about child slaves in Africa. After this humiliating fuck-up, Finkel finds out that someone has done what seems like the last thing anyone would want to do: pretend to be him. Christian Longo (Franco), accused of murdering his wife and children, claimed to be Finkel while on the lam. Once he was apprehended, Finkel visited him in prison, and the two men began a bizarre relationship. The movie, based on Finkle’s book, tracks Finkel’s development of that book—his attempt to build back his wrecked reputation.
In This Is The End, SNL appearances, and the like, Hill has mocked his actorly pretensions relentlessly; he has the right combination of neediness and ego to play this version of Finkel. Franco’s shapeshifting (or at least project-shifting) makes him a good fit for Longo, too, especially when he reveals that he wants Finkel to teach him about writing (it may be taken from the real-life Longo, but come on: classic Franco!). Both actors are well-cast and give good performances, as far as they go, but their bond isn’t as clearly connected as it could be, which is odd in a movie so thick with portent. Finkel gets drawn into Longo’s world, but the movie doesn’t exactly specify how or why, beyond Longo/Franco’s plainspoken charisma; I kept waiting for Longo to reveal something that would make Finkel trust him. It may sound like I’m demanding a lack of subtlety, but this dead-serious drama is otherwise prone to explaining its significance: “Don’t you see this as a second chance?” one of the men asks the other—probably Hill asking Franco, but honestly I forget, because their conversations aren’t distinctive enough for it to be obvious. Instead, there are lots of shots of Finkel staring with fascination at the drawings Longo has sent him, along with multi-page letters, the contents of which are never fully explained, either.
Director and co-writer Rupert Goold boxes his stars in—lots of close-ups and one-shots—and the movie feels claustrophobic, probably intentionally but not really productively. Felicity Jones, as the standard worried wife, has a couple of semi-surprising scenes opposite Franco, but they both feel removed from Hill/Finkel, maybe because Hill and Jones barely register as a couple. She’s such a worried-wife archetype that she never for a moment seems to exist outside of that framework. True Story doesn’t have enough incident or insight to work as drama or quite enough tension to qualify as a thriller. Instead, its docudrama approach cross-breeds two less enviable characteristics: The documentary that would be more interesting as a magazine article, and the fact-based drama where some of the most interesting details come in the printed epilogue.
The new horror picture Unfriended doesn’t have much tension, either, at least in the classical scary-movie sense, but its formal gimmick is surprisingly fruitful. The movie takes place entirely on a computer desktop: We’re seeing the screen of Blaire (Shelley Hennig, a forever-teenager as she approaches thirty), who Skypes with her boyfriend Mitch (Moses Jacob Storm), soon joined by the rest of their preppy-looking friend group. But an anonymous account joins them, claiming to be Laura. Laura, as we see in a YouTube video and a Facebook memorial, has been dead for exactly one year. As one of the characters types: “Ghost? J”
Srsly, it might be an internet ghost. Or is it just super-advanced cyberbullying? The movie doesn’t really push that suspense; its idea of nerve-racking tension involves getting the teenage characters to scream and freak out over each other, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the clamor encourages even more interactive talkback than your typical teen horror movie (a trio of women—grown women!—at my press screening certainly had a hard time not talking to the screen as if they were in on the Skype session themselves). But it does pay clever attention to the details of mediated communication, as the camera catches Blaire rephrasing some of her chat lines, offering glimpses of backstory in what she decides not to say, and moments of tingly anticipation during the wait for her chat partners to type back (it’s not a silent movie—the friends video-chat via Skype, but side conversations abound, in a touch both realistic and ADD-friendly). It’s rare to see the process of finessing communication portrayed on screen, and along with the rewrite process, Unfriended has other meta-movie mechanics as characters figure out how to handle exposition and Blaire chooses her own soundtrack cues (at least at first).
The technique is more interesting than the revelations themselves, which are mostly premised on all of the characters being almost impossibly duplicitous and disloyal. They’re also uniformly white, an odd decision given that the pixelated images make two white bro-teens in polo shirts especially difficult to tell apart (even the token outsider resembles the other characters through the Skype-window prism). I’m all for the bloody horror-movie punishment of preps, I guess, but I’m not sure that Unfriended is making any trenchant commentary out of this group of selfish, stupid teenagers accepting a fat dude into their ranks before anyone of any non-white color. Still, in its crude and somewhat overdetermined way, Unfriended paints a more vivid portrait of the evil inside seemingly regular people than True Story. The filmmaking gimmicks may not have much application outside of this instance, but after a chilly procedural, it’s a relief to watch a movie that doesn’t feel the need to hold much back.