Plot: After the death of his mother, a Hollywood writer with gigantic ears is raised in a circus where he befriends a talking mouse and becomes a clown. After imbibing something in a barrel--never a good idea, especially outside a circus tent--some imaginary psychedelic elephants encourage him to attempt flight, and with the help of a magic feather, he becomes the only and most famous flying elephant in the world. Unfortunately, some circus freaks accuse him of being a communist, and that threatens his career.
Not as good as similarly-themed Hail, Caesar! or Good Night, and Good Luck, this look at the infamous Hollywood blacklist focusing mainly on Dalton Trumbo suffers a bit from a paint-by-numbers approach. It resonates mainly because of good screenwriting (because it better have good screenwriting) and some really good performances. From a storytelling perspective, it deals too much in extremes. The good guys are all really good, and the bad guys are all really bad, and there's not really much depth except for some Trumbo family conflict and a conflicted Edward G. Robinson. It's a simple reading of Trumbo's story, and the character's put on a pretty high pedestal.
For you Breaking Bad fans who miss seeing a whole lot of Bryan Cranston's gorgeous body, you're in for a treat with this one.
Cranston's pretty good although the character starts to feel redundant after a bit. One character accuses Trumbo of saying "everything like it's going to be chiseled on a rock," and it seems like every other line is smug and witty. When Cranston gets the opportunity to portray Trumbo as a normal human with something close to normal human problems, the work is really good. Mirren, Goodman, and others play characters who are types, but they play them well enough for you to forget that. I thought Louis C.K. was pretty bad here and in the movie way too much although I was impressed with his cough-on-demand abilities. It's really an ensemble cast that kind of swirls around Cranston, and for the most part, it works well even when the characters feel more like something you're reading out of a history book than people made of flesh and sinews.
I'm really not sure about actors portraying very famous faces in movies like this. David James Elliot plays John Wayne, and even though he's not overdoing things or throwing out a cheap impersonation, it never feels right to me at all and is almost distracting. Michael Stuhlbarg has better luck as Edward G. Robinson, likely because he's not as recognizable a personality. It's probably the same with Christian Berkel, the guy who plays Otto Preminger, a colorful version of the director who provides some humorous bits late in the movie. Dean O'Gorman plays Kirk Douglas, a celebrity who is sort of in between. He's not John Wayne, but he's not exactly a nobody either.
Although people aren't terrified of Communists, this story of 1st Amendment infringement still feels timely in a way. It's an important story more than it is a great movie although it's worth seeing for the performances and some good writing.