'Trumbo' is a barndoor broad portrait of the Hollywood Blacklist
Bryan Cranston does more of an impersonation than a performance as Dalton Trumbo, the most famous of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten, in a biopic that is too simplistic about history.
Director: Jay Roach
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane
2 (out of 5) Globes
“Trumbo” opens with your standard opening text crawl about the events that led to the Hollywood blacklist’s formation in 1947. It’s two sentences long. What follows won’t be much more complex. A barndoor broad prestige drama that all but invites historical revisionists to poke holes in it, “Trumbo” relates the fall and rise of Bryan Cranston’s Dalton Trumbo, who went from top screenwriter to, along with the other members of the Hollywood Ten, pariah, forced to watch as films he sold clandestinely via fronts rake in adoring crowds and accumulate Oscars he can’t claim.
The inhumanity of the blacklist has been, with good reason, a favorite tale for liberal Hollywood to tell and re-tell. It’s been covered so often that one can wonder if many people only think they know the facts and might even fudge or distort them.“Good Night, and Good Luck” didn’t tell you everything, but it didn’t have to: it was focused on a very specific part of a larger story. Though trained on one victim, “Trumbo” has a lot more ground to cover, and it only winds up betraying how little it seems to know. At one point Cranston’s Trumbo explains to his young daughter what a Communist is in terms she can understand. But nothing that follows suggests the film has an understanding deeper than what you’d tell a little girl.
The blacklist itself is reduced to the brainchild of a single person: rightie gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who strongarms studio heads with threat of blackmail, sometimes while dispensing anti-Semitism. She’s the film’s baddie — its Joseph McCarthy, only stronger — and Mirren plays her like a Bond villain, smirking as she controls Hollywood from behind the veil of a mere trashy gossip column and sidling up to Trumbo in bars to mock the misfortunes she has heaped upon him. The bad guys are one-note hissable, from Hopper down to a brutish John Wayne, played in a poor “SNL” impersonation by one David James Elliott. (The guy who plays Kirk Douglas, who helped break the blacklist by crediting Trumbo’s work on “Spartacus,” is awful too.)
Movies are by their nature reductive, and you can sense screenwriter John McNamara trying to take inspiration from the era’s movies, even from Trumbo’s work itself, where life was stylized, where bold characters made quotable speeches, where the villains were hissable. But as directed by Jay Roach — the “Austin Powers” guy, who previously turned real life into a bad cartoon in “Game Change” — it comes off flat and dumb. McNamara’s dialogue alternates between lectures and cringe-worthy, should-have-resisted nudge-nudging. “Really, you think that’s a better title? ‘Roman Holiday?’”, Trumbo balks as he works on a classic he’ll have to sell under a front. Kirk Douglas complains about this stubborn young upstart director, Stanley Kubrick, while Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) enters the film by helpfully averring, “I’m Otto Preminger. The Director.” That last one gets a pass, as Preminger probably did talk like that.
To its credit, the unsubtle approach works in the more comedic second half, when Trumbo has to tirelessly eke out a patchwork living banging out trash scripts for Poverty Row studios, trying to slip “Barton Fink”-y artistry into total junk. It becomes a rollicking ride, peaking with a scene where John Goodman’s cheapie movie god Frank King goes medieval on a Hopper stooge. Cranston should be the lynchpin, holding it all together, and he does play up Trumbo’s wit and puckish joie de vivre; even at his most miserable, he looks like the cat that ate the canary. But he also succumbs to the broadness, turning in a dinner party impersonation more than a performance. You can’t even say “Trumbo” is a film you have to see just to see a great turn.