Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Films that plunge deep into Hollywood’s golden era are the stuff cinephiles love. Modern actors reviving the iconic figures of the silver screen is a genuinely awesome sight to experience. Director Jay Roach’s TRUMBO gifts us with that, but little more. It’s the best thing Bleeker Street has released so far – which means it’s just okay.
Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was living the American Dream in 1947 before he was publicly lambasted, jailed and blacklisted for being a Communist. He owned a gorgeous farmhouse in the suburbs with his wife Cleo (Diane Lane), daughters Niki and Mitzi, and son Chris and was one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. After facing down both government committees and Hollywood puritanicals, and jailed for his beliefs, he was forced to take matters into his own hands, moving to a smaller home, writing under pseudonyms night and day. Working on schlocky pictures from the King Brothers (played perfectly by John Goodman and Stephen Root) earns him money and functions somewhat as a creative outlet. However, people like gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and actor John Wayne (that guy from JAG David James Elliot) suspect their enemy is back at work – and they don’t take kindly to Trumbo corrupting America’s ideals.
The fun of TRUMBO is to see the ensemble cast play such iconic figureheads well without coming across as affected or goofy. Mirren is magnificent as a villain. She relishes every moment. Michael Stuhlbarg, who’s making himself quite the fixture on Bleeker Street’s roster having starred in PAWN SACRIFICE a few months ago, is fantastic as screen legend Edward G. Robinson. Even lesser known people like Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) and Frank King (Goodman) are great, giving the picture an effervescent zing and crackle. After a fairly stillborn second act, Goodman’s delivery of King’s no-nonsense attitude is what makes the third act sparkle.
Nevertheless, there are a few things lacking. It could have greatly benefited from a better sense of narrative drive – a motor to keep the energy going. As it is, it’s a solid, albeit standard, re-telling of Trumbo’s blacklist history – something we could have easily read on Wikipedia. It also doesn’t include a few things like the family’s exile to Mexico and the public shunning of their kids. The impending threat of the Trumbo family’s Highland Park neighbors goes nowhere – it’s just lip service. It’s also crippled by the studio’s model of over-explanation. With the exception of the welcomed subtleties of Dalton’s father-daughter relationship with Niki (Elle Fanning, whose skills are sadly under-utilized), everything is spelled out for viewers. We’re always told, rarely shown. If we are, it’s both shown and explained, because God forbid the audience has to work a little harder.
For as much as this is a biopic, it should also be a love story. It thinks it is, as evidenced by the closing cards about Dalton and Cleo’s marriage. Yet here we are, disheartened the filmmakers chose not to build in their marital love affair in a powerful manner. Cleo’s barely fleshed out as it is. One argument about not bullying their children does not make a character.
Sometimes, when you go to the movies, you are looking for one or maybe two needs to be met. Above all the film should be entertaining, but also make you feel good, like the time spent was well worth it. While TRUMBO satiates those needs, it only gives us just enough to get by, when it should have blown us away.
TRUMBO opens nationwide on November 25.