“Daddy, what’s a Communist?” a young girl on a pony asks her famous screenwriter father. You should brace yourself for this kind of exchange in Jay Roach’s earnest if too-soft biopic about Dalton Trumbo, the Oscar-winning firebrand who fought his way back from the blacklist. Bryan Cranston mined unlikely humor from his teacherly manner as Breaking Bad’s Walter White, but here, as the fussy, orotund Trumbo, he’s let down by a script that, for the most part, papers over the Spartacus scribe’s legendary severity. Trumbo goes for a tone that’s more scrappy and inspirational, as this ousted ex-A-lister enlists his kids as couriers, builds a network of collaborators and wins two Academy Awards undercover.
On the periphery of Cranston are performances that supply sparks of the flintier film that might have been: Michael Stuhlbarg as actor Edward G. Robinson, who goes from supporting Trumbo to selling him out, and Helen Mirren as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (the film could have used more of her viciousness). Is it too much to ask of a movie about writing that it devote some time to the ego that often drives such careers? Commie or not, Trumbo swanned around on a wave of self-regard. Roach, whose TV gigs (HBO’s Recount) reveal a penchant for tidiness, gives us someone closer to a fallen angel.
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