Back to the Oscars race today with a movie I’m surprised didn’t get more praise. Not because it’s great, but because it engages in Hollywood’s favorite hobby: licking its own balls.
So this is all about Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston), renowned Hollywood screenwriter behind classics like A Roman Holiday and Spartacus and noted Communist. See back in the 1950s, being a Communist was generally frowned upon, i.e.: you got spat on while walking the streets. Trumbo’s views on favoring unions (and being an intellectual asshat) get him blacklisted with several of his screenwriting buddies Ian Hunter (Alan Tudyk) and Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.). So famous columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and John “The Duke” Wayne encourage the Hollywood studios to deny work to Trumbo and the other blacklisted actors and writers, leading Trumbo financially strained. His only way to support his large family is to continue writing for under various pseudonyms for low-budget producer, Frank King (John Goodman).
So we’re back in the 1950’s Hollywood era that we saw in Hail, Caesar! only this time, there are some actual stakes to the proceedings. The Hollywood Blacklist is now generally looked back on as a “bad thing” with several people now called “traitors” in Hollywood like Ronald Reagan, just as people like him had called others traitors to the country leading to hundreds of people getting fired for the mere suspicion of being a communist and others choosing to end it all by suicide. This film opts not to tell the story of these average Joes, and instead tells the story of one of the Blacklist members mocking the system from behind the scenes.
Now what I like about this movie is that they don’t try to romanticize Trumbo’s communist leanings (at least not that much) because he’s generally portrayed as a smarmy, conniving asshole who thinks he knows better than everybody in the room. While he certainly has a tongue that could go on for miles, you can’t help (whether your political leanings are liberal or conservative) to want to punch him in the nose just to get the shut the hell up for five seconds. Even if every word that comes out of Brian Cranston’s mouth is actually pretty damn good.
Cranston gives a fine performance here, taking on several mannerisms from the real life Dalton Trumbo while also demonstrating a great emotional range. While his performance was pretty damn good, I wouldn’t say it’s earth-shattering. There were several family straining moments thrown throughout this movie that should have been emotional breaking points in Trumbo’s life, but here none of them really connected with me. I didn’t feel sad or angry, just quiet nodding as in I was just watching any other drama.
Fortunately, Cranston is assisted by several other quality actors like Louis C.K., Alan Tudyk, Helen Mirren, and John Goodman. Goodman and C.K. were incidentally my favorite actors in this whole movie, and I loved every scene they were in. From C.K.’s quiet exasperation with Trumbo’s bullshit to Goodman’s character of an exploitation film producer trying to turn a cheap buck and criticizing Trumbo’s rushed scripts while remaining fiercely protective of his best writer. Their scenes are far too brief, so we get a lot more exchangees between Cranston and his daughter played by Elle Fanning. I have to bring her up because they switch actresses for his daughter before and after Trumbo’s incarceration for 11 months and I swear it looked like she aged a decade in between these two sequences.
The other fine performance came from Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, an obnoxious gossip columnist that kept trying to ruin the careers of anyone on the Blacklist. She is also the one who calls Trumbo out to reveal which movies he has secretly worked on, but Cranston delivers fun verbal matches against her.
Overall, I liked the movie but I didn’t love it. It feels more like a very well executed biopic of a Hollywood legend, but it never rises beyond anything above that. There’s a strong undercurrent of freedom of speech in the first act of the film, and expected the theme to continue throughout the movie as Trumbo deals with the consequences as landing on the Blacklist for his political views. But the movie honestly gets bored and chooses instead to make this a straightforward biopic without little deviation from the real life events that inspired this movie.
But like I said, I’m genuinely surprised Hollywood hasn’t been giving as much love as I expected. Hollywood loves to remove its spine and toss its own salad like they did with The Artist and Argo, films that covered “the good ol’ days” of Hollywood in which the hero was a “brave” actor or producer. Trumbo hits all those exact same notes, but it’s largely been ignored during the Awards season. Even I admit, while I liked Cranston’s performance, it feels more like a runner up performance to the winner of Best Actor, much in the same way Johnny Depp’s performance in Black Mass struck me.
Still, there’s a lot to get out of this movie and it’s grown in estimation for me since I initially saw it a few weeks ago. But I still can’t rank it anywhere near the “best of the year.” So this is getting an enthusiastic…