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The joke is an unfortunate one: That Jay Roach’s biopic “Trumbo,” the director’s most serious feature yet, which seeks to enlighten audiences about the plight of beloved, then blacklisted, then redeemed Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) could benefit from a tighter script and some punchier direction. Roach is working from a script from veteran television scribe John McNamara (“Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman,” “Aquarius”), and the pedigree shows, as the first half of the two-hour-plus feature feels better suited to a cable outlet, a glossy television movie that lacks the sheen of the big screen’s best biopics. (The film’s awkward reliance on recreated newsreel and archival footage also possesses the same quality of a mid-budget television series.)
The problems are most apparent in the film’s first half, which presents a quick and dirty overview of Trumbo’s pre-blacklist days (the film opens with a credits crawl that uses evidence of Trumbo’s work — from movie posters to books to piles of scripts — to illustrate exactly who the man is in the minimum of time and creativity). Trumbo is already successful by the time we meet him, and while his wealth and prestige seem to be at odds with his Communist leanings, his politics are made plain early on. Hollywood is just starting to turn on Communists when “Trumbo” starts, and Trumbo and his pals are only beginning to embark on what would become the fight of their lives.
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It’s a fully serviceable start to the film, but it’s one that is bogged down in exposition and introductions. Cranston responds to the material and Roach’s direction by going hammy for a good portion of the film’s first half, equal parts cigarette-chomping pontificator and enlightened comrade. He simply never fully disappears inside the role. The film does handily impress upon the audience how bizarre the Communist witch hunt was, however, and Trumbo’s politics continually seem to be the most understandable part of a complex story.
That feeling only increases as the film’s enters its second half, which focuses on the trials of the Hollywood 10, the jailing of Trumbo and his pals, his release and his subsequent crawl back to the top of the screenwriting heap. As McNamara’s script pays closer attention to longer stretches of time, both Cranston and Roach relax a bit, allowing Cranston’s performance to finally work in some nuance and Roach’s direction to avoid the strange tonal changes that punctuate the film’s first hour. There’s plenty of ground for the film to cover, but “Trumbo” could just be a film about the screenwriter’s post-blacklist life, and it would likely be far more compelling. That’s the juicy stuff anyway.
“Trumbo” works well enough as a general survey of Trumbo’s life and career, a primer on a complicated man who endured a terrible injustice, but it fails to really engage with the material, to dig deep for significant themes and salient meanings. At one point in the film, a producer lambasts Trumbo for turning in a script that lacks genius — the same could be said of “Trumbo” the film, which meets the bare minimum for these sorts of outings, despite a wealth of essential material.
The film is packed with an impressive supporting cast — the kind that drew appreciative oohs and ahhs from its world premiere audience at TIFF — including Helen Mirren, Diane Lane, Louis C.K., John Goodman, Stephen Root, Elle Fanning and Michael Stuhlbarg, a few of which turn in some of their finest work. As Edward G. Robinson, Stuhlbarg is nearly transcendent, the only member of the cast to really disappear inside his role. Goodman, though he doesn’t appear until the film’s second half, gets the best scene in “Trumbo”, one matched to his bristling bravado (it involves going after someone with the business end of a baseball bat, all while railing on about the more sensuous luxuries of being a Hollywood big shot).
C.K., despite being tasked with some genuine drama, can’t quite deliver the same pathos he’s been able bring to his own television show as of late. It’s the film’s most disappointing casting decision, despite its admirable boldness. Mirren is hammily evil (she looks like she’s having fun, and even when her Hedda Hopper verges into lunacy, that good cheer keeps her work here afloat), Fanning is giving precious little to do and Lane is the film’s most calming presence. That’s necessary, too, because the film’s oddly wacky tone needs something — or someone — to root it. At the very least, it could stand a more focused script. Too bad no one could send it out to Trumbo and his team for rewrites.
“Trumbo” opens nationwide on November 6.