** out of ****
for strong language, including some sexual references
Released: November 25, 2015
Runtime: 124 minutes
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Louis C.K., Michael Stuhlbarg, John Goodman, Elle Fanning, Helen Mirren
In the simplest terms, Trumbo is AC-TORS AC-TING in A Very Important Movie.
Given its showiness and subject matter, it should come as little surprise that this true-life satirical drama about the Hollywood blacklist ended up leading the nominees for the 2015 Screen Actors Guild Awards. That embrace has little to do with the film’s actual quality and almost everything to do with the fact that it’s red meat for the SAG voting base.
Its broad theatricality is so extreme that, at one point, an exasperated character actually asks the titular Dalton Trumbo, “Do you have to say everything as if it’s going to be chiseled into a rock?!” Such a self-conscious line shows that the filmmakers are aware of how grandiose their effort is, yet unfortunately they wear that self-import as a badge of honor. Suffice it to say, Trumbo would be more apt contending for Tonys, not Oscars.
The Hollywood Blacklist is the most infamous result of the Joseph McCarthy Era. From the late 1940s through the 50s, that senator – in conjunction with Congressmen on the House Un-American Activities Committee – sought to expose Communist sympathizers as the Cold War intensified post-WWII. The easiest, headline-grabbing targets were outspoken members of various left-leaning Hollywood unions, many of whom had joined the Communist Party in America. Though none of this activity was illegal, being branded a traitor in spirit was enough to blackball entire careers.
The first to fall was The Hollywood Ten, a group of writers, directors and producers who were ostracized simply for their Communist affiliations (the blacklist would eventually number in the hundreds). Dalton Trumbo (played by Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston) was one of those ten, and this film follows his subversive efforts to, slowly but surely, work his way back into the Hollywood establishment by writing successful scripts under various pseudonyms – two of which (Roman Holiday and The Brave One) went on to win Academy Awards for Best Screenplay during the 1950s, their mysterious unknown scribes being conspicuously absent at each Oscar ceremony.
Director Jay Roach is not one known for subtly. From the Austin Powers comedies to more comically-serious issue-based TV fare like Recount (about the Bush/Gore election fallout) and Game Change (mocking the easy target Sarah Palin), Roach has yet to meet a movie he won’t overplay. But while his two HBO softballs may have won him Emmys, his small screen style doesn’t expand here, let alone mature, as he requires his cast to showboat while he coasts on a rudimentary cinematic style.
Cranston, on the other hand, elevated the television landscape with his iconic meth-maker Walter White. The depth and complexity he brought to that role is entirely missing in Dalton Trumbo. Instead, Cranston feels like an actor fresh off a successful Broadway run – which is exactly what he is, having recently won a Tony for playing LBJ in the Presidential bio-play All The Way (now being adapted for HBO, also directed by Jay Roach). Here, even in the most intimate close-ups, Cranston’s severe caricaturized affectations are still playing to the back row.
At least half the cast is equally over-the-top, with the women – Diane Lane, Elle Fanning, and Helen Mirren – faring much better than their male counterparts. Aside from Louis C.K.’s instinctive naturalism (which, while good, feels entirely out of place here), the men are “playing” the material rather than becoming the characters, reaching for (rather than earning) laughs, profundity, and possible awards attention. So much scenery is chewed that you expect at some point for the actual screen to be devoured.
As those grandstanding histrionics spew polemical dialogue, Trumbo’s preachy bias makes for its greatest irony: a film about the power of great screenwriting has one pedestrian script. It, along with Roach’s “all bark/no bite” tone, seems to be going for some sort of quirky Coen Brothers invective. The difference, though, is that while the Coens wield wit and farce to pop the bubble of pretense, Roach and his collaborators use it to build the myth of an unsung industry martyr and the heroic sacrifices he and his family made. It’s an admirable mission with a completely wrong approach.
Trumbo is a film about the movie industry that’s entirely in love with itself and its own sense of nobility. In other words, there may not be a safer bet for multiple Academy Award nominations this year. Let’s just hope that’s where the Oscar love stops because, unlike Trumbo himself, this doesn’t deserve to win a single statue.