First-time big screen director Rupert Goold enjoys a reputation in the U.K. as a theater director. It shows. You can see the blocking.

Here, Goold brings to the screen a true story called “True Story,” that could have had some excitement, were it not for casting two actors who chose to, or were directed to, play the whole thing sotto voce. Alas, there is none. There is a lot of voce between the actors, and most of it is annoyingly sotto. Bring your earphones.

The story: A part-time Starbucks barista murders his children and wife, or maybe he killed two of them and not the other two. We’re treated throughout the trial with lots of downloaded pictures, gory details of a little girl, not quite dead, put into a suitcase and dumped in a channel somewhere.

The barista, Christian Longo, (James Franco) flees to Mexico, picks up and beds a German girl.

Here’s where it gets murky and complicated. When he is found and arrested, he claims to be New York Times reporter Mike Finkel. Of course he’s not. Mike Finkel (Jonah Hill) is in New York, being fired by the Times for screwing up a big article on damaged African children, or something like that.

The real Mike Finkel is notified that this killer has stolen his identity. Actually he hasn’t, he’s only borrowed his name, because he’s a fan, something like Charles Manson taking Stephen King’s name, because he loved all those horror stories.

Finkel, now exiled from New York and living back home in Montana with his young wife, (a criminally wasted Felicity Jones) is roughing it in a splendid, to die for, stylized cabin unlike Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace.

We’re left, for the entire film, to wonder why Finkel was living in Manhattan, leaving Felicity, a literary historian, in Montana? To ward off wolves and/or paper cuts all alone?

But desperately in need of recovering his reputation, Finkel meets up with Longo and agrees to tell Longo’s side of the story, even as he suspects he’s lying.

There are many details floating around atop this lake of mendacity, like bits of soggy puzzle pieces we’re asked to put together. But to list them here would surely give away the curious and unsatisfying ending. We’re left with one clue — a wink. Make of that what you will.

“True Story” soon evolves into a kind of bromance between killer and writer. There are long cuts between Franco’s brown eyes and Hill’s blue eyes. Franco, in prison orange, has this permanent smile that seems to say, “I wish we could truly be alone,” and Hill displays frosted, almost stunned expressions that seem to say, “I wish I could quit you.” Maybe that explains why Mike has been living so far from his beautiful wife. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Of course, we’re tempted to think of this as a version of Truman Capote’s hots for killer Perry Smith in “Capote.” Oh, that it were.

The real mystery of “True Story” is why the delicate, talented Felicity Jones is even part of this menage. She hangs around on the edges for a long time and then, sensing the real reason for Longo’s deal with her hubby, one that still escapes us, goes to see the prisoner and plays him an ancient piece of music and a story about another Longo.

About this time, we’re longing for a “Fargo” ending. Nope. Sorry.

Goold is clearly a talented director, but with a lot to learn about making movies. The real star of “True Story” is cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, who brilliantly shot “Silver Linings” and “The Grey.” His work is fun to watch.

Whatever interest I had in Franco at the start of his career has long faded, and I’m still mad at him for ruining the Oscars. As for Hill, he’s still coming up in the business, and I’ll hold the elevator door for him to see what happens. It’s clear he’s working hard to escape those excremental “22 Jump Street” movies.

To paraphrase Groucho Marx, “I had a great night at the movies. This wasn’t it.”

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.


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