Tuesday, December 15, 2015

OVP: Trumbo (2015)

Film: Trumbo (2015)
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis CK, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg
Director: Jay Roach
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Actor-Bryan Cranston)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

I almost didn't see Trumbo, but thankfully considering the place it has taken in the Oscar race I managed to catch the film out of morbid curiosity.  It seems strange, in hindsight, that we didn't see the writing on the wall here, as the film is about Hollywood's favorite subject: itself.  Chronicling the lives of the Hollywood Ten and the way the Blacklist cast a pall on the movie industry is something that AMPAS probably wants to put its two cents on retroactively, particularly considering that they played a pretty interesting hand in the original blacklist controversy, specifically in the case of our title character of Dalton Trumbo.  The problem is that the film, even with an interesting subject and a robust cast of fine actors, is that it is too staid, traditional, and not particularly good, which is a pity because it's about to be a dominant conversation piece in the awards season.

(Spoilers Ahead) The issue with the film is, as I stated above, not the subject, as the story of Dalton Trumbo was kind of made for the silver screen.  A prominent screenwriter and author, he went from being the toast of Hollywood, writing blockbuster after blockbuster, to being denounced as a Communist, and then eventually serving a prison sentence for Contempt of Congress.  After that he couldn't get hired to write under his own name, so he invented a bit of a mini-factory with his fellow blacklisted writers doing B-pictures for King Brothers, and despite being blacklisted still managed to write two Oscar-winning screenplays during the time with other names being fronts for the films (Roman Holiday and The Brave One).  His talent eventually brought to an end the blacklist when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger both revealed that Spartacus and Exodus were written by Trumbo, making the pretense that blacklisted writers weren't working ridiculous.

All of this is chronicled in Trumbo, and it's too enthralling and delicious of a story not to be occasionally entertaining.  It's a treat to see some of the random celebrity encounters, such as Michael Stuhlbarg's Edward G. Robinson and Dean O'Gorman's sexier-than-reality Kirk Douglas.  However, the movie is so dry and preachy that it doesn't feel as fun as it should be.  It doesn't help that Cranston can't find a lot of interesting things to say about Trumbo other than to make him a bit of a snarky saint, and most of the side characters are window-dressing.  Aside from the occasionally fun movie star impression, we have women like Diane Lane and Elle Fanning just standing there, revolving their entire world around Trumbo and doing nothing more than reflecting his drive.  On the opposite end of the spectrum is Helen Mirren, a talented actress who completely misgauges this role, making Hedda Hopper into a pseudo-fascist and even if that's true (Hopper was supposedly a horrible human being), it's hard to believe that she indulged in quite the scenery-chewing histrionics that Mirren puts her through, sinking every line as if she's landing a punchline.  Mirren's year, in fact, has been pretty poor between this and Woman in Gold, which makes her recent spate of awards success all the more puzzling.

The film also wants to exonerate Hollywood a little too ferociously, in my opinion.  While we get to see the devastation of what the blacklist did in particular to onscreen talent like Edward G. Robinson, it makes it seem that the film community, or at least anyone recognizable that isn't Hedda Hopper or John Wayne, was fine with the blacklist when clearly most of the community sat by and just let this happen.  This was, of course, wrong, but I would have preferred a little bit more insight into the minds of Hopper and her ilk to better understand the "why" behind this hatred, which is portrayed as simply a type of cartoonish villainy rather than gaining any sorts of human insights into their fear and paranoia.  This would have been a more interesting screenplay than simply one of a martyr, one that I suspect Dalton Trumbo himself would have better-appreciated.

Those are my thoughts on Trumbo, the film that apparently could when it comes to awards season.  What are yours-do you think Cranston or Mirren will be able to scoop up an Oscar citation?  Do you think they should?  And are you with me that this is a case of "interesting subject, boring execution?"  Share your thoughts below!

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