Bryan Cranston parades through Trumbo, a wiki-pageant of shorthand history, like he's a costumed kid playing Actor Bryan Cranston at a Disney park. As blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, a man given to mannered diction, Cranston layers movieland falseness over the scraped-raw heart of his Breaking Bad triumph.
Remember how you could see Walter White creak and tremble in his low moments, then get grimly off when at last he worked out some new way to best everyone? You never get to see Cranston's Trumbo think, which is a demerit in a movie about a writer: Here, the two-time Oscar winner, for pseudonymous work on The Brave One and Roman Holiday, only speaks lines that he might have composed — the ringing dialogue of classic Hollywood — even when knocking about the house. His daughter, riding on a spotted horse, asks, "Dad, are you a Communist?" and in his response, a plummy cheese about whether she would share her lunch with a hungry classmate, he could be Gregory Peck's Atticus teaching Scout about justice.
His every line is so composed — and so fussily enunciated — that it's a little confusing when, deep in the film, he recedes from his family so as to find time to bang out the scripts he couldn't put his name on: When his every utterance sounds like movie talk, who knew it was work for him to come up with it? Cranston's Trumbo is a cartoon drawn without doubt or anxiety, with nothing grinding away behind his specs and 'stache. His every word is a sip of the grandest Bordeaux, and he's his finest sommelier, appraising each mouthful. My favorite is the way he hits right in the phrase "the right to know," luxuriating in the R like Tony the Tiger might. Trumbo served two years in jail for his refusal to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and Cranston declaims his letters to home: "Yet in all things I know that I am the luckiest unlucky man ever to be," he says, and however pretty that line might be, the movie is wrecked by the fact that it sounds exactly like everything else he ever says.
So you'll never mistake the lead here for a real man, not even the quite refined screenwriter of Spartacus, Exodus, and — in his blacklisted years — Gun Crazy. Some of that anti-naturalistic studio-era corniness is intentional: Witness Louis C.K.'s Arlen Hird, the rare character who behaves like he doesn't know he's in a movie, complain, "Do you have to say everything like it's going to be chiseled on a rock?"
But acknowledging the problem isn't the same as correcting it. Director Jay Roach has specialized in the loudest and lowest-aiming star-driven comedies — the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents movies — and here, as in those, everything else seems subordinate to the whims of his leads.
The film fails as a portrait, and it's not much better at drama. Cringe at the clumsy crosscutting between a celebratory picnic at the Trumbos' house, where everyone for some reason summarizes the previous scene, and the approach of a black car on a sunny road, a sight that only suggests suspense because the editing insists that it should. This is a Hollywood where everyone always takes a moment to sum up the current situation for us at the beginning of each scene, where Hedda Hopper (a one-note Helen Mirren) snaps at Louis B. Mayer (Richard Portnow), "Forty years ago you were starving in some shtetl!" before calling him an abusive "kike," where Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman), standing up for blacklisted screenwriters, actually gets to say, "I am Spartacus," like he believes it.
The history passes in a vague gush: Trumbo's trial and conviction skip right by, as do his years in jail, which are marked by the film's worst and best scenes. First the worst: Fancying himself a teacher, Trumbo perks up upon meeting a black inmate (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who appears to be illiterate, but Roach and screenwriter John McNamara immediately upend one black stereotype with another. Turns out the guy's a ferocious bruiser who can read and compose tough-guy speeches for R-rated movies: "Look down on me, and I will fuck you up like you've never been fucked in your bullshit Hollywood life."
That's preceded by one of the few moments where Cranston proves compelling. Trumbo stands stripped before a prison guard who forces him to turn around and reveal every cranny. Without a mustache or glasses to hide behind, and given no lines to chisel-speak, Cranston looks, just for a moment, like a man gritting through something terrible — like someone you might understand.
For all that, the movie has one big thing going for it. Roach stages welcome cameos from Hollywood history, giving scenes worth watching to John Wayne (a mighty David James Elliott) and Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg). One starts as a heel but almost proves decent by the end; the other vice versa. (Stuhlbarg's Robinson is amusingly mild, not offering a single nasal quack, and he looks disconcertingly like Ted Cruz.)
Christian Berkel's Otto Preminger is cute, but the movie is stolen by John Goodman as Frank King, skinflint producer of cheapo B flicks, a robust comic figure who gets all the best lines and speaks them like a human being might. King and his brother Hymie (Stephen Root) employ blacklisted writers not out of a desire to right injustice but because they want cheap scripts. There's a great comedy to be made out of Hollywood's blackballed commies getting by working for the town's crassest capitalists — judging by 10 minutes or so of screen time here, Roach might even be the person to shoot it.