Hey! Here’s a 2015 bio-pic about Hollywood overcoming adversity, so I guess we’re officially in awards season! Fortunately, this is actually a decent one thanks to a deft sense of humor from all involved. You just have to accept all the melodrama and cheese as inherent traits of the genre.
Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo, a man who was both the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood and an outspoken communist. Given that he was both things right around the time of the McCarthy hearings, that was a recipe for disaster. Sure enough, Trumbo and nine of his buddies were called before Congress and refused to answer any questions about their political affiliation. It was their right, but they still ended up in prison.
Upon getting out of the joint, Trumbo began worming his way back into the industry by getting ghost-writing jobs for himself and his blacklisted brethren. It started in the lowest level of B-pictures (personified here by a particularly hilarious John Goodman as a sleazeball studio head), and eventually led back to the studio system where Trumbo scored a pair of Oscars under assumed names. Yes, this is an Oscar-baiting movie that actually uses the Oscars as a symbol of acceptance, just in case the Academy wasn’t playing close enough attention.
A film like ‘Trumbo’ almost has to be graded on a curve. Like all self-important Hollywood bio-pics of its ilk, the movie is melodramatic, cloy and desperate to assert its own importance. You kind of have to assume all of those limitations going in. Underneath that lowered bar is a pretty entertaining little picture. It helps that director Jay Roach (‘Austin Powers’, ‘The Campaign’) doesn’t take things too seriously. He fills supporting roles with the likes of Louis C.K., Alan Tudyk and Stephen Root to milk comedy out of the moral crusade. It also certainly doesn’t hurt that Trumbo himself was a man so grandiose and histrionic that no film could hope to match the grandstanding he delivered on a daily basis.
Above all else, this is of course the Bryan Cranston show. While the ‘Breaking Bad’ star plays things pretty damn big, he always remains compulsively watchable. Even in the most distractingly speechy and heart-tugging moments, Cranston plays to entertain the back seats rather than just to campaign for gold statues. The cast from top to bottom have no problem matching him, whether it’s stalwart performers like Helen Mirren and Diane Lane or a handful of old-timey movie star lookalikes.
‘Trumbo’ might be goofily over-the-top and self-satisfied, but it’s at least entertaining and never stretches its ambitions beyond crowd-pleasing dramatics. There’s a great movie destined to be made about the Hollywood Blacklist scandal. ‘Trumbo’ isn’t it, but it’s certainly a good movie made by talented people who mean well. That’ll do for now.