I love a good Hollywood biopic, especially about fascinating figures of the cinematic world. One of the most fascinating people to ever work on motion pictures was Dalton Trumbo, the genius screenwriter who was blacklisted for his membership in the Communist Party. The story of Dalton Trumbo was one that was tailor-made for the exact kind of films that he wrote. It was a story that needed to be made, and now that it has been made, I can’t say that I am disappointed by the final product, but quite simply, too many elements just don’t quite add up for the immersive, faithful Hollywood biopic Trumbo promises to be.
First of all, a remarkable actor needs to be in the leading role of Dalton Trumbo. Bryan Cranston, who went from being a character actor to bona fide iconic star with Breaking Bad, was urgently awaiting his cinematic breakthrough. What better way to achieve cinematic acclaim that with a prestige Hollywood biopic? It was exciting that Cranston was making the jump to cinema, because during all these years as a television star, Cranston proved that he is strangely cinematic, and it was only a matter of time. The role of Dalton Trumbo was sure to be one well within Cranston’s wheelhouse…except, it wasn’t. Trumbo is a fine film, but one that is so incredibly weak, I am surprised that it was released cinematically, and not on HBO. Quite honestly, Trumbo is a very well-made HBO biopic, but an incredibly weak feature film that doesn’t quite live up to the importance that it believes to be preaching. However, Trumbo is still a very entertaining film.
Cranston is fantastic, as always, but there is just one small problem – he isn’t nearly as natural as he normally is. In Trumbo, he gives a performance that is best described by the most dreaded word any actor has to hear – hammy. It is a shame, because Cranston truly is a talented actor, but in Trumbo, you can clearly see his use of the traditional acting mechanisms – from the chewing of the scenery, to the dramatic and artificial speeches he makes throughout the film – it honestly reeks of primetime television rather than an immersive cinematic experience. This is the problem with Trumbo – instead of being a smart and interesting and candid look at a dark chapter in Hollywood history, it is more of a cheesy portrayal done in a way that stirs up false emotion and paints a clear picture of who the “good guys” are, and who the “bad guys” that pursue them are. Part of this is because Cranston just doesn’t have the material here to make Trumbo a real and natural character, and it is not surprising that the biggest criticism of his performance is the fact that he plays more of a caricature rather than a realistic version of the iconic screenwriter. I don’t think Cranston is bad at all, but the performance he was given, and the direction that Jay Roach gave him, just didn’t pan out. I hope Cranston gets better film work in the future.
As with most Hollywood biopics, there is a myriad of well-known stars in different sized roles, from major supporting players to simple cameos. Of course, John Goodman makes another appearance in a thankless but very funny supporting role as Frank King, the vulgar head of the B-movie studio that Trumbo goes to as a last resort. Goodman is freakishly reliable as always, but like most of the time, he simply plays the comic relief and never gets anything serious to do, which is unfortunate because Goodman is one of our finest character actors and deserves far more than he has been receiving. Diane Lane is lovely but serves very little purpose as Trumbo’s supportive wife, Cleo. Elle Fanning plays a girl from her early teenage years to her adulthood, which is bizarre, but otherwise not really notable. The biggest surprises in the supporting cast are two people I didn’t really expect to be in this film. First off is Louis C.K., a comedian who I never once thought would go out of his comfort zone and do prestige films like this. I was truly taken aback when, in 2013, he starred in both Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine and David O. Russell’s American Hustle, and now with his performance in this film, I have to wonder where he is hoping to take his career, but I am very sure wherever he takes it, it will be wildly interesting. The other is Helen Mirren, who is perhaps not such a bizarre choice (she starred in the very similarly toned and themed Hitchcock in 2012), playing Hedda Hopper, the notorious newspaper gossip columnist and socialite. I adore Helen, but in this film, she was just…bad. First of all, her American accent was atrocious, and while I know she can do an American accent, she kept slipping back into her native British accent, which was very distracting. Her performance was not effective, nor was it vaguely as villainous as she’d hoped it to be. It was just a dreadful performance from one of the greatest actresses working today. As a whole, Jay Roach has assembled a fantastic cast, but doesn’t give any of them much to do.
Trumbo is a fine film, but it is messy. It tries to tell an undeniably interesting story, but in a way that is ineffective and bland, and in a film like this, the performances truly make or break the film, and when your lead man gives a performance more suited for Victorian stage than for a contemporary film, and your supporting cast doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, you have to wonder where this film went wrong. Trumbo was certainly an entertaining film, but an ultimately disappointing one, because the subject of this film deserved far better. It just isn’t a great film, and I wish it was better, for everyone involved’s sake.