‘Trumbo’ Review: Bryan Cranston Plays the Blacklisted Screenwriter In This Gaudy Pick-cha
When the first trailer for Jay Roach’s Trumbo dropped this past summer, I thought I was getting a brief peek at what would become one of fall’s most buzzed about biopics with an Oscar-worthy leading role. After all, it stars Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo, the politically undeterred Hollywood screenwriter blacklisted for his Communist beliefs during the Red Scare. Just the poster of Cranston in thick-rimmed glasses, holding a cigarette and a scotch by a typewriter immediately had me excited to see the actor in a post-Breaking Bad leading film role. A movie about movies with a great supporting cast, including Helen Mirren as a notorious gossip columnist and John Goodman as a B-movie producer – what could go wrong? But that’s just the thing with biopics, especially ones about Hollywood, which face the risk of mistaking homage for pastiche.
Directed by Roach (known for the Austin Powers trilogy and Meet the Parents), with a screenplay by TV writer John McNamara (Aquarius, Fastlane) Trumbo tells the story of the titular screenwriter who was called to testify against the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947 after a list of names associated with the Communist Party was published. After Trumbo refused to give names to the committee, he was convicted for contempt, imprisoned for 11 months and, along with many others, blacklisted by the studios. For most, this meant the end of a career in Hollywood, at least a reputable one.
But Trumbo persisted, writing Oscar-winning films under pseudonyms while making money on the side scripting low-rate movies for the King brothers’ production company, with Frank King played by Goodman and Stephen Root as Hymie King. Trumbo’s Roman Holiday, which was fronted by writer Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), and 1956's The Brave One, credited under the fake name Robert Rich, both went on to win Oscars for Best Original Screenplay. Sadly, Trumbo never got to hear his name called at the podium nor see it inscribed on the golden statues (though the Academy finally recognized his work on Roman Holiday in 2011). Eventually, Trumbo’s screenplays for Stanley Kubrick‘s Spartacus and Otto Preminger’s Exodus helped bring about the end of blacklisting in 1960 when he was acknowledged with credit.
Trumbo stays pretty true to history, with portrayals of real-life figures, including Mirren’s Hedda Hopper, Richard Portnow’s MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, and actors Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuglberg), John Wayne (David James Elliott) and Kirk Douglas (a great Dean O’Gorman). A few characters are amalgamations of real people, including Louis C.K.’s blacklisted writer Arlen Hird, and Roger Bart’s Buddy Ross. Despite the factual basis of the film, most of these characters come off as caricatures of Old Hollywood archetypes. The Mid-Atlantic, polished accents may be true to the era, but they feel overbearing and obnoxious, especially in such surplus. There’s only so much talk “of a new pick-cha!” against the background music of fast tempo drums and rapturous horns one can take. Trumbo’s biggest misstep is in sacrificing an aura of authenticity for gaudiness in its attempts to capture the unsavory era of American filmmaking.
Surprisingly, Mirren’s Hopper is the most flamboyant of the cast, with her hyperbolic declarations against Trumbo and preachy American pride swelling each of her scenes with unnecessary melodrama. Hooper is no doubt a fascinating figure, an unabashedly vicious columnist who was known to destroy careers and celebrities’ personal lives with a headline – the original, one-woman TMZ. An element of garishness is essentially to portraying the character, yet Mirren’s performance is too brash with little restraint. The same can be said of C.K.’s Hird but for opposite reasons. While everyone else in Trumbo is overly dedicated to representing the idiosyncrasies of people from that period, C.K. simply plays himself in 1940s attire. The comedian-actor (though he’s much more of an actor who plays a comedian than a comedian who can also act) brings his usual self-depreciating humor and insecure sarcasm to Hird, which at one point can be refreshing to Louie fans (self included) until you realize this is a real movie where that shtick doesn’t make much sense. Why Trumbo’s casting director thought it smart to cast Louis C.K. in a period piece will forever plague me.
Then again C.K.’s inability to escape into an actual character is same as the problem with the rest of the film, which fails to suspend any disbelief. In Trumbo it’s hard not to feel like you’re watching actors on a movie lot playing actors on a movie lot. Its self-awareness and noticeable desperation in convincing audiences of Trumbo’s under-celebrated place in movie history turn the movie into an over-calibrated affair. Everything, from the characters’ animated accents to the dumbed down explanations of politics – in one scene, Trumbo uses a silly sandwich metaphor to describe Communism to his daughter – to the oversaturated color palette, is too much. Cranston’s mustache, though somewhat reminiscent to the real writer, is even laughable.
For a while, Cranston’s earnest performance is enough to make Trumbo enjoyable, but eventually his excess becomes exhausting and all too familiar. Obsessed with finishing his screenplay for Exodus, Trumbo becomes a tyrannical maniac far too reminiscent of the darkest days of Walter White. And up against this year’s already bursting Oscar lead actor race, Cranston likely won’t be securing his EGOT status this year. The best part of the movie comes with Goodman’s brazen, bat-swinging King brother, reminiscent of his studio boss in The Artist, though this time with more audible boisterous shouting. Somehow, Goodman’s signature booming presence makes sense here, but that’s probably because he’s playing the overly-aggressive “cheapies” producer. He’s supposed to be a hyperbolic “character” while everyone else should be grounded in a sense of reality. But nothing in Roach’s film is grounded as it champions on with its rah-rah attitude.
It’s great that something like Trumbo will remind audiences of the man behind some of the great writing of Hollywood’s past. Too bad this movie’s far from worth remembering.