Synopsis: In 1947, Dalton Trumbo was Hollywood’s top screenwriter until he and other artists were jailed and blacklisted for their political beliefs.
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Diane Lane, Alan Tudyk, Michael Stuhlbarg, Helen Mirren
Director: Jay Roach
Running Length: 124 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: Though it’s not a great movie, Trumbo has been enthusiastically received by the lords and ladies of Tinseletown and I think I know why. There’s nothing Hollywood loves so much as a good redemption story…especially one that it’s involved with. Any chance they have to pat themselves on the back is taken with glee, even if it’s involving a dark stain on its history that never should have happened in the first place.
Playing like a made for TV movie that could have aired on HBO (where director Jay Roach has seen several of his political projects find great acclaim over the last decade), Trumbo is a hammy take on the years when numerous Hollywood players were put on the blacklist thanks to the McCarthy hearings. Thought to be Communists in a time of great fear of the unknown, friends turned on friends and the mere mention of affiliation with the Communist parties saw careers, not to mention lives, destroyed.
Already explored in countless films/documentaries over the years (including a fictionalized take like 1991’s also mediocre Guilty by Suspicion), the way that Trumbo could have set itself apart was not playing like a standard biopic of one man’s downfall. Yet it falls prey to every convention, every plot trap, every pothole that you can think of. It may be a mildly diverting piece of entertainment, but it doesn’t go beyond the surface.
What elevates the film is the presence of several star players. Helen Mirren and John Goodman have some solid screen time and make the most of it. Mirren (Hitchcock) is Hedda Hopper, the notorious Hollywood gossip columnist with a poison pen for anyone that crosses her. Mirren’s demeanor changes on a dime when challenged and the actress balances that sweet/sour persona with ease. Goodman (Flight) is also notable as the hot-headed small-time studio exec that isn’t one to be pushed around. And before Diane Lane (Man of Steel) fades into the background as her role becomes mere wallpaper, she’s a strong matriarch in a family that’s struggling.
These three performances can’t save the picture, though, mostly because they aren’t the leading player. I’ve long struggled with Bryan Cranston (Godzilla, Rock of Ages) onscreen, feeling that he’s never as good as people think he is and certainly lacking the charisma that made his Breaking Bad character such a legend. He’s off the mark here for most of the picture, cartoonishly impersonating Dalton Trumbo’s voice and mannerisms that suggest he’s older than he really is. It’s only when the character actually ages that the performance matches up.
Worst of the bunch is Louis C.K., completely out of his league as a disgraced writer dealt even more devastating blows as he falls from favor. The comedian seems uncomfortable in front of the camera and with his dialogue, never convincing us that he’s to be taken seriously as a dramatic actor. It’s a woefully poor performance, and put up against the roster of other strong cast members it just can’t be considered on the same level.
As a biopic, I guess Trumbo earns marks for its draft of events. It’s workmanlike in its execution and the production design is pleasing. Still, I kept waiting for the film to be better, to say something extraordinary…instead of just playing by the rules. Aside from Mirren, Goodman, and Lane…it’s a fairly insignificant telling of a painful part of history.