Review: ‘Trumbo’ has problems if even Louis C.K. and Bryan Cranston don’t click

TORONTO – The damage the House Un-American Activities committee wrought between 1938 and 1975 was unconscionable.  As the Cold War heated up thousands of innocent citizens were accused of being members of or sympathetic to the Communist Party and this committee was responsible for much of the hysteria.  The witch-hunt hit Hollywood hard and after a number of hearings prompted the infamous blacklist, an unofficial designation that denied work to anyone in the industry with suspected communist ties.  There was one man who is credited as bringing the blacklist down, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and his story is chronicled in Jay Roach”s new biopic “Trumbo.”  Something tells us if Trumbo were alive today he might pass along some script notes to Roach and writer John McNamara.

In theory, “Trumbo” is an incredible true story that should be prime fodder for a great movie.  Before the blacklist, Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) was one of the most respected and highly paid writers in Hollywood with films such as “Kitty Foyle” and “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” to his credit. As was his right, he also registered as a member of the communist party in 1943.  When Congress started investigating the entertainment industry Trumbo was called to testify and, along with nine of his peers, refused to answer any of the committee”s questions. Known as the infamous Hollywood Ten, they were convicted for being in contempt of Congress and sent to jail.  And while there was no evidence ever presented that they had done anything nefarious outside of refusing to testify before a committee, the big movie studios effectively banished them from the industry.

The movie doesn”t pin the blame only congress, there were also overly patriotic forces in Hollywood itself that were wielding a big stick.  Notorious gossip queen Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) and the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, led by John Wayne (David James Elliott) in the film, were as vindictive and judgmental to anyone they didn”t deem as suitably patriotic as a cadre of high school mean girls.  

Roach and McNamara spend a good deal of time setting up the circle of the Hollywood Ten which included Trumbo”s good friend Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.).  It chronicles their initial battle to protect their constitutional rights, but it”s also the first time you realize something might just be slightly off with the movie itself.  Cranston and Louis C.K. are two of the most lauded talents of the past decade. And yet, while their lines “seem” like the witty repartee you”d expect between two talented authors, the two actors have almost zero chemistry together.  It”s simply odd how little energy they generate.

While the historical events surrounding Trumbo”s life are fascinating (if not infuriating), the film really doesn”t get jumping until he begins ghostwriting scripts for B-movie producer Frank King (John Goodman).  The gigs don”t pay well, but it”s money Trumbo desperately needs to keep his family afloat. Goodman is pretty much playing King as a not-so cousin to his character in “Argo,” but it doesn”t matter.  He hilariously gives the film a much-needed jolt every time he”s on screen.

After Trumbo writes or re-writes a number of successful genre pictures for King”s production company, the producer returns the favor by bringing his screenplay for “The Brave One” to the screen.  The drama is written under a pseudonym, Robert Rich, but still wins the Best Writing, Motion Picture Story Academy Award in 1957 and for Trumbo”s family, it”s sweet redemption.  They have been ostracized by their neighbors and forced to keep secrets to keep his career afloat.  A few years earlier Trumbo gave his writing credit for “Roman Holiday” to Ian McLellan Hunter. That picture also won a screenplay Oscar, but with “Brave”s” win Hollywood sent a signal to the ostracized that the era of the blacklist was coming to an end.

Eventually, word gets around town that Trumbo has ghostwritten not only “Brave,” but “Roman Holiday” as well.  That”s when none other than Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) and legendary director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) show up (independently of one another) to recruit Trumbo to work on their respective screenplays for “Spartacus” and “Exodus.”  If the movie starts to click at any point it”s during these scenes where Trumbo tries to work on both projects over the Christmas holidays.

Cranston has his moments and you have to laud his attention to detain in channeling Trumbo”s unique voice and mannerisms.  Unfortunately, he”s so committed that his character borders on being a caricature.  There is a moment toward the end of the film where Trumbo gives a major speech that should be the character”s defining moment.  It”s an emotional moment that you”d expect Cranston to easily pull off.  Instead, it just feels flat.

And, sadly, that”s the biggest problem with “Trumbo.” Considering all the talent in front of and behind the camera, the film itself isn”t anywhere near as compelling as the real life events it”s based on.  This mostly falls into Roach”s purview.  The filmmaker best known for big screen commercial comedies such as “Austin Powers” was able to balance the true drama of both HBO”s “Game Change” and “Recount” while finding a way to make the stories just as entertaining.  For the most part that”s missing this time around.  No one is suggesting Roach should make “Trumbo” a light and breezy romp, but when you have such an captivating “character” as Dalton Trumbo in your hands the picture needs to fly higher than this.  

There is one element of silver lining to all of this.  Somewhere Dalton Trumbo can at least rest easy knowing that this time around the screenwriter won”t get the lion”s share of the blame.

“Trumbo” opens in limited release on Nov. 6.