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'True Story' (R)

James Franco has become such a goofy, ubiquitous presence in films and online bits that we forget how good of a serious actor he can be. In True Story, Franco delves into new territory (for him) playing Christian Longo, a man who has been accused of murdering his wife and three children and is in prison awaiting trial.

Longo has pleaded guilty to only two of the murders: The death of his wife, who he says was the real culprit and died while he was trying to prevent her from killing his kids, and his youngest daughter, who was three years old and was mortally wounded and beyond help, so he put her out of her misery in an act of dark, twisted mercy.

Their two bodies were found beaten and strangled and stuffed into a suitcase that was fished out of a nearby lake. When Longo was arrested, he was in Mexico passing himself off as Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill), a reporter for The New York Times who was fired after admitting to have fudged some facts for effect in some of his stories.

The bulk of the movie consists of conversations between Longo and Finkel, who goes to visit the suspect to find out why the supposed killer had impersonated him. Finkel is rewarded with an offer by Longo of exclusive, tell-all interviews. Longo promises to tell Finkel everything for the purpose of a book, even supplying him with a fat folder of letters and disturbing drawings explaining his actions, with only one condition: Finkel must agree not to publish until after the trial is over.

True Story, which is based on the real-life Finkel’s nonfiction book, plays with the truth for the sake of drama (the movie never purports to be a documentary). But the omissions and changes help clarify and compress a tale too big and complex for a single movie. This is the story of two men who desperately need each other and are willing to extend a shaky, hesitant trust for their own personal benefit. The film’s suspense takes the form of a high-stakes poker game in which each man is figuring out if he is being conned, searching for a tell or a hole in the other’s stories, trying to suss out which of them is the fabulist.

Finkel, played by Hill with a grave, believable demeanor that sells even his distractingly large eyeglasses, needs Longo in order to revive his derailed career. Longo needs Finkel to get his side of the story out there and avoid a certain death sentence, and although the reporter has become a pariah in journalistic circles like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair, he still commands enough respect to land a book deal. Both of them know this is Finkel’s last chance at redemption: He can’t blow it.

Franco invests Longo with a magnetic, elusive charm that is easy to succumb to: Even when his eyes seem to be hiding something, his honest, straightforward manner and open-book answers make you wonder if you’re not projecting your own suspicions on a man who is telling the truth. The two actors, who are well-known friends and played fictionalized versions of themselves in the raucous comedy This Is the End, develop a gripping back-and-forth that avoids the considerable potential for unintentional laughs inherent in their casting. Instead, the movie builds an aura of queasy, vague menace, accentuated by a superb score by Marco Beltrami.

But although Hill gets more screen time (Felicity Jones plays his wife), Franco drives the picture and rivets your attention. He draws you in the same way he fascinates Finkel, daring you to try and figure out whether he’s lying. True Story marks the directorial debut of Rupert Goold, a respected British theater veteran who also co-wrote the script and knows how to engage the viewer with simple scenes of two people talking (with a few modifications, this could have easily been a play).

By film’s end, True Story is less about the evil of which people are capable than the way we manipulate and act, sometimes unconsciously, in order to get what we want. The final scene is a cautionary one that provides no simple release for anyone: Be careful what you wish for.

Cast: Jonah Hill, James Franco, Felicity Jones, Robert John Burke, Gretchen Mol, Ethan Suplee.

Director: Rupert Goold.

Screenwriters: Rupert Goold, David Kajganich. Based on the book by Michael Finkel.

A Fox Searchlight release. Running time: 100 minutes. Vulgar language, graphic descriptions of murder, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.