Review: ‘True Story’ rocks hard but leaves out so much

“True Story” may have started life as a fictional movie, but in many ways it plays like a documentary. It contains clues left out of the early draft that help you connect the dots on the true story: the launch of journalism website the Onion in 1996; its transition to the absurdist, slightly X-rated antics of “The Onion News Network” in 2000; and its stand-up collection in 2015, “True Story.”

“True Story” was never meant to be a chronological portrait of the farce, but filmmakers Christopher Ford and Michael Holthouse favor a loosely chronological feel that helps make up for the film’s slow start, then an uncomfortable equivocation that occasionally signals the end.

And yet, by the end, you may find yourself laughing, crying and thinking in ways the movie never intended.

The film relies heavily on interviews and recreations, and it’s meant to be the real-life story of both the millions of men and women who graduate from law school each year, and the luckier ones who find jobs with money and stability.

The biggest red flag when director Ford picks up the camera at the 2001 White House Correspondents’ Dinner is that he has asked “True Story” star Kevin Hart to play the real-life presenter of the award. The choice makes the whole thing feel inevitable.

From there, things go south fast: During a dinner set to take place in 2006, George W. Bush takes Hart aside for a whisper-filled meeting that is uncomfortable in an uncomfortable way. Bush even makes Hart laugh when he mentions the president’s love of a particular cartoon. By that point, Hart seems like a mooching coward who doesn’t know his name.

By the end of 2006, it has become clear to both Hart and the filmmakers that the “True Story” that is playing out onscreen is anything but. But like an exaggerated extension of the movie itself, it isn’t truly revealing, either.

“True Story” provides hints and clues along the way, but the real interviewees probably aren’t going to trust you enough to give you their full story.

Part of the problem with such autobiographical movies as “Argo” and “Good Morning Vietnam” is that they tackle periods in time that are out of sync with what we actually know about those events. “True Story” is less zany than those movies, but it doesn’t feel like it really tries to distinguish itself by it. It coasts by on that same slippery relationship to truth.

Even when “True Story” builds to a surprisingly touching, heart-pumping climax, there is something missing from the picture. It isn’t that the filmmakers make something entirely out of thin air; it’s that they don’t seem to know what it is.

Perhaps “True Story” was born at a nostalgic place in what is, after all, a dramatization of a sprawling and endlessly inconsistent era of American history. Regardless, that means it is ready for a replay: None of us will ever really know how to explore our histories on our own.


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