Trumbo (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Trumbo (2015)

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With the Red Scare in full swing, Donald Trumbo, prominent screenwriter, and his Communist allies stage careful protests arguing for their First Amendment rights.  But as the public sways more against their favor, Trumbo has to abandon his public life to serve Hollywood from a less conspicuous perch.  Jay Roach directs Trumbo from a screenplay written by John McNamara and stars Bryan Cranston.

Unintimidated by the suitsTrumbo's director, Jay Roach, has as nondescript a style as they come in Hollywood.  Roach began his career directing Mike Myers as Austin Powers in all three of the Powers films, then transitioned to making lightweight political films like Recount and Game Change.  If his movies were bad, he'd have the same reputation as Brett Ratner.  But since they're frequently ok, or hinge entirely on the appeal of his stars, he's mostly existed on the sidelines of Hollywood.

As someone who already has to remind himself what movies Roach has done, Trumbo will do little to make his name or style a sticking point in my memory.  Trumbo is as bland and unoriginal as biopics come.  It also had the unfortunate timing to be released about the same time as Bridge of Spies which, while Bridge was just a decent flick, showed creative flair incorporating Cold War criticism into American and Soviet propaganda.

I found myself identifying a lot with Louie C.K.'s performance in Trumbo, wondering what all the aplomb is about.

I found myself identifying a lot with Louie C.K.'s performance in Trumbo, wondering what all the aplomb is about.

Roach is not nearly the stylist Steven Spielberg is, and it's probably not fair to compare the two.  But both involve protagonists living parts of their lives in secret while carrying out the wishes of public figureheads.  When the best Roach can muster is switching from flat black and white to widescreen color, while Spielberg edits a joke of a trial with children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, it's hard not to wish Roach stretched his creative muscles just a bit.  Since the rest of Trumbo plays out with Bryan Cranston making various faces at men in suits, it makes for a dull viewing experience.

I've been a big fan of Cranston for years, but his big-screen performances haven't had the same impact as his small-screen work.  His Trumbo practically plays like a cartoon character for most of the run-time.  Cranston is endlessly mannered, speaking in a highly affected tone and gesticulating with pointed dramatics - none of which is well-served by Roach's direction.  Cranston's Trumbo is like a man slightly removed from his time, a Truman Capote trying to stick up for the little guy than hit the big Hollywood parties, but Roach frames Cranston mostly as the frowning man in a room of laughing or serious people.  Cranston's performance could have been modulated slightly to fit the not-quite-as-dramatic tone of Roach's direction, but as it stands is tiresome in a movie already filled with mostly bland performances.

Trumbo and Cranston's Trumbo both come alive when they have a straight man or someone somehow more cartoonish to bounce off of.  Louie C.K. does excellent work in the least affected performance of Trumbo as Arlen Hird.  Much like C.K.'s rage was boiling just under his Oscar presentation, his work as Hird is without pretension and makes a great frustrated counterpoint to Cranston's mannered Trumbo.  On the other end of the spectrum you have an almost Addams Family-esque turn from Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger, whose haughty air and exaggerated "otherness" makes an amusing companion for Cranston's rough-hewn Trumbo.

Since C.K. and Berkel are around for the first and last halves of Trumbo it keeps the film from being too much of a bore.  Waiting around for them to come back is rough, and it's hard to figure out just what direction John McNamara's screenplay is trying to take.  It suffers from the problem almost all biopics have in that it tries to cover a lot of ground at the cost of focus.  Trumbo's time in prison feels airlifted from a different movie, with class and race conflicts only becoming present when Trumbo's in the prison, only to be replaced with typical "father knows best but is also kind of a tyrant" domestic drama when Trumbo returns home.  There's an incisive critique to be made here about white intellectual types engaging in race and class when it suits them, but any dalliance with these critiques is temporary at best, returning to a comfortable holding pattern when Trumbo encounters a new problem.

The odd couple pairing of Trumbo and Otto Preminger make for great comedy in their brief moments together.

The odd couple pairing of Donald Trumbo and Otto Preminger make for great comedy in their brief moments together.

Nothing exemplifies Trumbo's total lack of controversy like Diane Lane as Trumbo's wife Cleo.  Trumbo gets a line late in the film that Cleo is so quiet that when she does speak it sets him on the right path.  Hardly anything in Lane's performance, dialogue, or juxtaposition with Trumbo suggests this earth shattering effect and if I watched this moment in silence I would scarcely have an idea of how she influenced him.  This isn't Lane's fault, she's just ill-served by a screenplay that relegates her to the background and a director who can't think of anything interesting to do with her.

Trumbo's the rare film where my Indifference rating is probably worse than a dislike.  It's not poorly made, or memorably bad in any specific way, but barely lingers in my mind a day after viewing.  I hope the right director finds the way to channel Cranston's energy in movies like he can on television.  For now, Trumbo is an effort so limp I can't even speculate what might have been.

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Tail - TrumboTrumbo (2015)

Directed by Jay Roach.
Screenplay written by John McNamara.
Starring Bryan Cranston, Louis C.K., and Diane Lane.

Posted by Andrew

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