I want you to take yourself back to middle school. You’re in your sixth-period American History class, and the teacher is out for the day. The substitute–a noticeably hungover twentysomething–pulls the projection screen down and puts on…something. You can’t really catch the name, what with the sub’s mumbly voice and Hannah and Heather chatting excitedly behind you. It’s, uh, related to what you guys are studying, the sub reassures you.
The lights dim. Colors dance on the screen. Your mind drifts, the carb-loading of your lunch weighing you down into a gentle slumber. As you doze, you catch snippets of dialog, crafting in your mind some sense of the story that intermingles with your hypnagogic pre-dreams. The cast members blur into one another until all that’s left is antiquated costumes and an impression of plot. There’s this guy…it’s in the fifties, I think?
This is the world of Trumbo, albeit for once created intentionally rather than by accident and happenstance. Oh, sure, on its surface, Trumbo has all of the trappings of late-autumn-adult-drama fare; but the actual experience of seeing Trumbo is akin to watching a pile of period piece cliches melt onto each other in orgiastic pleasure. Characters talk, scenes ostensibly occur, but it all misses on incredible, hilarious scale. It’s as if we’ve been gifted with a copy of the film that beat out Simple Jack for that Oscar.
Every single character in Trumbo is bizarrely, hysterically wrong–largely because the production is trying to force the actors playing them into doing the “right” moves. After all, it’s all worked before: the silly speech mannerisms, the one-trait-per-character rule, and constant monologuing have all the hallmarks of A Serious Film, yes, but what Trumbo seems to have missed is that most of those Serious Films–which disappear into the wasteland of memory a year after their release–are not necessarily something to be aspired to.
Rather than try to actually imbue the film with personal meaning or substance, the production team behind Trumbo has instead littered it with tired paean upon tired paean, espousing virtues such as “sticking up for yourself” and “never backing down”. The “bad guys” are, of course, pure evil just for funsies, with the limpest of excuses for their actions and a multitude of kick the dog moments awkwardly inserted every ten minutes just to remind us how bad they are–up to and including a racial slur thrown at Louis B. Mayer that comes out of absolutely nowhere and leaves us all scratching our heads.
Of course, this endows the film with a giant helping of the greatest sin in storytelling (after boredom): preachiness. If nothing else, Trumbo is gleefully, inanely preachy, hitting its single message–the blacklist was bad!–over and over and over again. Every single scene stands not on its own, but as yet another way to hammer home that same point. We see how the blacklist was bad with regards to work!–to family!–to health!–until it all becomes meaningless goo.
With Trumbo, the biopic–a staple of American cinema–has finally been rendered completely meaningless. It stands not as a film, but as a product, assembled on a line much like any summer blockbuster; beats are hit, trailer-moments are delivered, and any and all personal feeling has been filtered out in favor of commercial inoffensiveness. At least with Trumbo, there’s no cinematic universe–unless you count every other person’s life about to be adapted to the screen.