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Saturday, December 5, 2015

Hopper and all the Heddas

Speranza

Or is it Heddas and all the Hoppers?








Photo

Bryan Cranston in “Trumbo,” directed by Jay Roach. Credit












In “Trumbo,” an ill-conceived take on one of the most famous targets of the Hollywood blacklist, Dalton Trumbo clenches a cigarette holder that juts in the air like a sword. 

Given that Trumbo is played by Bryan Cranstonyou have hopes that Trumbo will soon be making like Errol Flynn and dashing and slashing through the film, giving it verve, excitement. 

Trumbo was a pistol. 

A baker-intellectual turned industry insider, Trumbo was funny, barbed and wildly prolific, with screen credits that range from “Kitty Foyle” to “Spartacus.” 

Trumbo was also a Communist, which for many made him a traitor, the Devil, no more than a terrorist.
Part biopic, part historical gloss, “Trumbo” tells a great-man story with a patchwork of fact and fiction, mixing in the odd bit of newsreel with a great many dull, visually flat and poorly lighted dramatic scenes.

Written by John McNamara and directed by Jay Roach, it opens in 1947 in Los Angeles, where, in between shouts of “Action!” and “Cut!” and the usual wheeling and dealing, Hollywood is coming under siege.

That was the year that the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings in both Los Angeles and Washington to look into Communist doings.

Witnesses were summoned, including the famed Hollywood 10 — Trumbo among them — who refused to testify, were deemed “unfriendly,” cited for contempt of Congress, fined, sentenced and jailed.

This is the backdrop for the film, which routinely casts an eye at the big political picture but prefers to narrow in on the more personal story of Trumbo’s struggles at home and at work.

To that end, there’s the domestic SOAP involving his loyal, loving, blandly conceived wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), and their three children.

Oddly, the eldest, Niki (Madison Wolfe plays her until Elle Fanning steps in), ends up having more narrative and emotional weight than Cleo.

Niki’s prominence smacks of a screen-writing contrivance, mostly as a way to paint Trumbo as someone who remained a loving family man despite his ordeals.

But too often, when Trumbo explains stuff to his daughter ("Dad, are you a Communist?") the filmmaker is obviously explaining stuff to the audience.

It’s rotten when a film for grown-ups talks to its audience as if it were a child.

Then again, with its wall-to-wall caricatures, its bellowing and mugging (including from Cranston) and historical reductivism, “Trumbo” sometimes evokes an old Looney Tunes sendup of Tinsel Town, though without the beauty, wit, visual style or economy.

Some of the bellowers offer welcome relief, notably John Goodman as Frank King, one of the B-movie independents, who with his brother Hymie (Stephen Root) gives Trumbo work when the establishment refuses to.

Goodman gooses the movie to life, as does Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, the gossip queen who here, ridiculously, becomes the embodiment of everything that stinks in Hollywood, never mind the titans who ran it.
It’s impossible to tell if the filmmaker does not trust the audience or simply does not have the chops, guts or heart to do this story justice.

The blacklist remains vital and lamentably topical, and it’s clear why someone thought it was a good time to pull Trumbo back into the limelight.

But the man who helped give us “Gun Crazy,” an American masterpiece, among many other titles, deserves a smarter portrait.

The film does not just dumb down history, it also elides and slides over critical milestones, both personal and public, as well as the complex ideological divides that turned friends into enemies.

Its Trumbo is a charmer who wears his contradictions so lightly you might not notice them, despite the occasional ribbing from his friends.

You have to wonder if the real Trumbo would recognize him.




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