MOVIES ABOUT WRITERS can be tricky. Writing is not a visually interesting thing to watch. Most writing consists of: Long sigh. Check email. Check Twitter. Longer sigh. Check email again. Check Faceboo—whoops, mistake, close Facebook as fast as possible. Pour another cup of coffee. Longest sigh. Check weather. Mash out a few words on the keyboard. Nope. Sucks. Delete, delete, delete. Longest-er sigh. Annnnnd lunch.
Luckily for us, Dalton Trumbo liked to write his famous screenplays while taking a bath, with his typewriter placed on a desk that rested on the edges of the tub. He also smoked incessantly, using one of those cigarette holder thingies that Miss Scarlet has on the box of the Clue board game.
Trumbo certainly makes the most out of those two visual hooks, and as a third bonus, they have Bryan Cranston playing the part of the screenwriter, who was blacklisted for being a communist in the 1950s. Unsurprisingly, Cranston is good, and Trumbo's story is undoubtedly interesting—but the makers of Trumbo seem to think that good writing is magic rather than hard work. Look at this weaver of story, this spinner of yarn, making silver-screen pixie dust with every clickity-clack of his typewriter!
The other bullshit fallacy that Trumbo holds in high regard is that the be-all end-all of human existence is winning an Oscar. Dalton Trumbo's screenplays won two, but because of the blacklist, he was uncredited for both of them. If only this poor unfortunate soul—who maintained steady work during the Red Scare by churning out screenplays under aliases for both reputable and disreputable movie studios—could have his own name carved on one of these little trophies, everything would be a-okay.
I'm being a little hard on Trumbo, though, as parts of it are pretty fun. Walter White's bloody-mindedness makes its way into Cranston's depiction of the stubborn Trumbo, and Louis CK is fantastic as Arlen Herd, actually a composite character of several of Trumbo's commie buddies. John Goodman and Stephen Root, meanwhile, are hilarious as the King Brothers, B-movie producers who hired Trumbo to write and rework a surfeit of schlock during the height of the blacklist. Goodman's scene with Dan Bakkedahl almost singlehandedly makes up for all of Trumbo's shortcomings.
But even Trumbo's communist ideals are dealt with in pie-eyed terms by director Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Game Change). When Trumbo's daughter asks him what communism is, he gives her some platitude about sharing a sandwich in the schoolyard. Meanwhile, the right-wingers—John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren, who's surprisingly bad here)—are depicted as one-dimensional monsters, fear-mongers baying for blood. And good god, poor Diane Lane. Lane plays Trumbo's wife, and her thankless role is the acting equivalent of peeling potatoes in a restaurant kitchen.
Trumbo's third act does sing a little, particularly when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger enter the story (Trumbo wrote—and got credit for—the screenplays for Spartacus and Exodus, effectively ending the blacklist). But to get there, you have to wade through a lot of dreary, paint-by-numbers biopic clichés and endless finger waggling about how the blacklist was very, very bad. (Does anyone in the audience need to be convinced of this?) If a screenwriter of Trumbo's skill had written Trumbo's screenplay, maybe we'd have gotten something with a bit more depth. Instead, Trumbo feels like a made-for-premium-cable movie with a bunch of great cameos.
Long sigh. Is it time for lunch yet?