‘Trumbo’ attempts to dive into the complicated life of an important figure in Hollywood history, while also serving up easy-to-swallow drama for the award-bait crowd and qualifying as a comedy too. That’s quite a bit for a movie that ultimately lands as light entertainment to pull off. Indeed, ‘Trumbo’ frequently sags under the weight of all of the different tones and audiences that director Jay Roach hopes to satisfy.
It’s a messy movie that doesn’t quite come together as well as the filmmakers hoped. Still, it’s also an enjoyable picture with plenty of amusing performances and stabs at film history that should please the target audience without necessarily thrilling them.
Bryan Cranston stars as legendary Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. In the 1940s, he was a man in constant demand just starting to grow into his talents. He was also an entertainingly histrionic member of the show business community, always ready with a rowdy drinking tale or controversial outburst to delight and disgust the elite. Unfortunately for Trumbo, he skewed politically too far to the Left for his times. In an attempt to improve workers’ rights on the studio lot, Trumbo became a Communist and enlisted a series of writers and stars to join his cause. When prickly gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) decided to make that public and the Red Scare era kicked off, Trumbo was right in the middle of the crosshairs.
Ever the troublemaker, Trumbo convinced his screenwriting buddies to refuse to discuss their Communist status in front of Congress in the name of free speech. That landed them jail time and, when they finally emerged, they were blacklisted from working in Hollywood. Of course, Trumbo wasn’t the type to let something like that defeat him. He began writing scripts for the studios in secret under pen names. At first, they were B-movies made by trash producers (embodied here by a hilarious comedy team of John Goodman and Stephen Root), but they were successful enough for Trumbo to rise through the ranks once more. He eventually won two Oscars under fake names while blacklisted and was finally allowed to resume his career publicly when Kirk Douglas gave him full credit on ‘Spartacus’.
It’s a pretty fascinating tale of backdoor Hollywood shenanigans, and certainly deserved to be a film. The trouble is that while director Jay Roach and his screenwriter John McNamara were clearly passionate about the project, they had trouble wrangling it together. The movie never quite settles into a consistent tone, which is both its greatest strength and weakness. It’s hard to predict whether any sequence will end up in slapstick comedy land or in more somber territory. The movie works best at its comedic peaks, playfully diving through a dark chapter of Hollywood history on the back of Trumbo’s larger-than-life personality and wit. Whenever Roach treats the material more sincerely and dramatically, he tends to revert to irritating sentimentality and melodrama to communicate emotions by slapping the audience in the face. It’s done in part to conserve screen time, but also because it’s the laziest and easiest way to add weight to light comedy. (The plots involving Trumbo’s relationships with his family are particularly wooden and manipulative.)
Even so, the story is strong enough that there’s still plenty of fun and interest to be had, even when the facts are fudged. Cranston goes big in his performance and remains endlessly entertaining to watch while swinging for the fences. He overacts at times, but only because the film’s tone is wonky and his character is so naturally over-the-top that it would have been tough to find the limits of the performance. Everyone else seems to be having similar fun around the sidelines in supporting roles, from Helen Mirren’s delightfully sneering gossip-flinger to Goodman’s B-movie sleaze, Alan Tudyk and Louis C.K.’s hard luck writers, and Michael Stuhlbarg’s tortured Edward G. Robinson. Everyone in the cast (aside from those saddled with the family drama portion) got to play either an icon or a goofball of Hollywood past, and Roach obviously enjoyed letting them all cut loose.
‘Trumbo’ is an enjoyable entry into the awards season this year, even if it’s hardly a great movie. It’s a bit too uneven for that (not to mention the awkward fact that this Oscar-bait picture actually uses the prestige and importance of winning an Oscar as a plot point more than once). It’s not a movie to be taken seriously no matter how many times the filmmakers beg audiences to do so, nor is it a particularly accurate history lesson. This is fluff for adults with a sweet tooth for Hollywood lore. As long as you walk into the theater expecting that and not art, there’s quite a bit to enjoy between all the pandering.