Bryan Cranston parades through Trumbo, a wiki-pageant of shorthand history, like a costumed kid playing actor Bryan Cranston at a Disney park. As blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a man given to mannered diction, Cranston layers movieland falseness over the scraped-raw heart of his Breaking Bad triumph.
Remember how you could see Walter White creak and tremble in his low moments, then get grimly off when at last he worked out some new way to best everyone? You never get to see Cranston’s Trumbo think, which is a demerit in a movie about a writer; here the two-time Oscar winner (for pseudonymous work on The Brave One and Roman Holiday) speaks only lines that he might have composed — the ringing dialogue of classic Hollywood — even when knocking about the house.
Trumbo served two years in jail for his refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Cranston declaims his letters to home: “Yet in all things I know that I am the luckiest unlucky man ever to be,” he says — and however pretty that line might be, the movie is wrecked by the fact that it sounds exactly like everything else he ever says.
So you’ll never mistake the lead here for a real man, not even the quite refined screenwriter of Spartacus, Exodus and — during his blacklisted years — Gun Crazy. Some of that anti-naturalistic studio-era corniness is intentional: Witness Louis C.K.’s Arlen Hird, the rare character who behaves like he doesn’t know he’s in a movie, complain, “Do you have to say everything like it’s going to be chiseled on a rock?”
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But acknowledging the problem isn’t the same as correcting it. Director Jay Roach has specialized in the loudest and lowest-aiming star-driven comedies — the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies — and here, as in those, everything else seems subordinate to the whims of his leads.
The film fails as a portrait, and it’s not much better at drama. Cringe at the clumsy crosscutting between a celebratory picnic at the Trumbos’ house and the approach of a black car on a sunny road, a sight that only suggests suspense because the editing insists that it should. This is a Hollywood where everyone takes a moment to sum up the current situation for us at the beginning of each scene, where Hedda Hopper (a one-note Helen Mirren) snaps at Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), “Forty years ago you were starving in some shtetl!” before calling him an abusive “kike,” where Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman), standing up for blacklisted screenwriters, actually gets to say “I am Spartacus” like he believes it. The history passes in a vague gush: Trumbo’s trial and conviction skip right by, as do his years in jail.
But for all that, the movie has one big thing going for it: Roach stages welcome cameos from Hollywood history, giving scenes worth watching to John Wayne (a mighty David James Elliott) and Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). One starts as a heel but almost proves decent by the end; the other vice versa.
Christian Berkel’s Otto Preminger is cute, but the movie is stolen by John Goodman as Frank King, skinflint producer of cheapo B flicks, a robust comic figure who gets all the best lines and speaks them like a human being might. King and his brother Hymie (Stephen Root) employ blacklisted writers not out of a desire to right injustice, but because they want cheap scripts. There’s a great comedy to be made out of Hollywood’s blackballed commies getting by working for the town’s crassest capitalists. Judging by ten minutes or so of screen time here, Roach might even be the person to shoot it.