Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, February 23, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Trumbo (2015)

As referenced many times before, Hollywood loves nothing more than a story about Hollywood. As happily pointed out by numerous sources, the Oscars are a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back-a-thon for the film industry. So I’m not shocked that someone would overturn the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in search of Academy gold. A screenwriting hero, Trumbo was already previously the topic of an identically entitled documentary in 2007. “Trumbo” reeled in an all-star cast and director Jay Roach, a filmmaker better known for gag-filled comedies. The reviews were soft, many dismissing the film as the blatant Oscar bait it is, but that didn’t stop the movie from scoring a nomination anyway.

In the early forties, Dalton Trumbo is one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. While his films are successful and critically acclaimed, his politics attract controversy. As the Cold War grows hotter, Trumbo’s blatant Communist beliefs make him a target for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His name winds up on the Hollywood Blacklist, unable to find work under his own name. After being held in contempt by the Supreme Court, Trumbo spends some time in prison. Upon being set free, he gets jobs writing B-movies which eventually takes him back to Hollywood, where his name and opinion continues to attract problems.

Bryan Cranston’s career journey has been nearly as fascinating as Trumbo’s own. The beginning of his career had him doing voice-over work for anime dubs and “Power Rangers” episodes. Eventually, he became recognized as the manic, child-like dad on “Malcolm in the Middle.” After that series ended, the starring role on “Breaking Bad” made him a critical darling and a household name. As Dalton Trumbo, Cranston sports a bushy mustache and several prosthetic moles. Cranston is good when spitting Trumbo’s rascally dialogue. An exchange with John Wayne or interviews with journalist are especially memorable. The script gives Cranston all the expected Oscar highlights. A moment, when yelling about what he hopes to accomplish while working on the Blacklist, is sure to be the clip played during the nomination announcements. Despite the conventionality of the script, Cranston still gives a good performance. He makes the part more than a collection of quirks, making his Trumbo a memorable character.

Like any respectable Oscar bait, “Trumbo” loads its supporting cast with many recognizable names. Diane Lane plays Dalton’s long suffering wife, working best when quietly explaining her strife as the spouse to a difficult man. Helne Mirren has a nearly cartoonish part as Hedda Hopper, who the film treats as practically a supervillain. Yet Mirren is good at getting some juicy fun out of even a ridiculous part like this. Louis C.K. plays Arlen Hird, a composite character dying of cancer. C.K. has a couple good scenes opposite Cranston, enlivening stale material. David James Elliott does a mediocre John Wayne impersonation. Michael Stuhlbarg does not attempt to emulate Edward G. Robinson’s beloved speech patterns. Christian Berkel goes in the opposite direction, doing a comic book version of Otto Preminger. Only Dean O’Gorman is uncanny as Kirk Douglas, looking and sounding just like him. Of the supporting parts, a thunderous John Goodman is the best, especially when decimating his office with a baseball bat. I wish Elle Fanning was given more to do as Trumbo’s put-upon daughter.

“Trumbo” is not satisfied being just a biography of a famous screenwriter. Like many movies primed for Oscar gold, the film has to be about Something Important. In this case, “Trumbo” focuses on the rise and fall of the Hollywood Blacklist. Much attention is paid to the effect being blacklisted has on Trumbo and his fellow writers/Communists. Trumbo and others are imprison and some die. The Red Scare is shown as an unreasonable witch hunt, destroying lives for little to no reason. Which it was, basically. Yet the film’s tendency to paint McCarthy and his goons in such broad, simplified strokes does a disservice to history. Similarly, Trumbo’s struggle to find work, how he subverts the system by working for B-companies, and his long journey to receiving credit is painted as an epic fight. Because “Trumbo” isn’t done ticking off check boxes, it also shows how divided Dalton’s family becomes from his overworking. It borders on melodrama at times. The film’s attempts to be Important are shallow and obvious.

That comes with the territory, I suppose, and most critics happily dismissed “Trumbo” as just that. Oscar obviously isn’t above being pandered too, considering Cranston earned a nomination.  Yet “Trumbo” isn’t a bad movie either, as it features some alright performance and one or two amusing moment. I don’t expect to remember the movie in a few weeks but I’ve definitely seem more embarrassing, less effective, more nakedly ambitious Oscar Bait in my time. [6/10]

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