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In Theaters: BOMBSHELL (2019)

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BOMBSHELL
(US/Canada - 2019)

Directed by Jay Roach. Written by Charles Randolph. Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Allison Janney, Malcolm McDowell, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Mark Duplass, Liv Hewson, Brigitte Lundy-Paine, Rob Delaney, Stephen Root, Robin Weigert, Amy Landecker, Mark Moses, Richard Kind, Holland Taylor, Alanna Ubach, Anne Ramsay, Andy Buckley, Brooke Smith, Ben Lawson, Josh Lawson, Nazanian Boniadi, Brian d'Arcy James, Alice Eve, Elisabeth Rohm, Bree Condon, Ashley Greene, Tricia Helfer, Jennifer Morrison, Lisa Canning, Ahna O'Reilly, John Rothman, Tony Plana, Kevin Dorff, P.J. Byrne, Spencer Garrett, Michael Buie, Marc Evan Jackson, Katie Aselton. (R, 109 mins)

A chronicle of the Fox News sexual harassment scandal that brought down chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, BOMBSHELL belongs to that same "ripped from the headlines" subgenre that gave us THE BIG SHORT and VICE, generally decent films that provide easy Oscar bait for big-name actors to do uncanny impressions of ubiquitous figures. BOMBSHELL is very much in line with those films, and could make an unofficial trilogy with director Jay Roach's two previous HBO political docudramas, 2008's RECOUNT and 2012's GAME CHANGE. Those were instant Emmy and Golden Globe magnets, with RECOUNT giving Laura Dern a chance to do a remarkable take on Florida Attorney General Katharine Harris, and GAME CHANGE showcasing Julianne Moore and Ed Harris as dead-on versions of Sarah Palin and John McCain, respectively. But because these stories are so recent and the 24-hour news cycle so constantly there and in our faces, BOMBSHELL falls into the same trap as the rest of these kinds of movies: it entertains but offers nothing that we don't already know. Given Roach's history with HBO, it's surprising that BOMBSHELL is even in theaters. It follows the same formula and style as RECOUNT and GAME CHANGE, eschewing the snarky smartassery that Adam McKay brought to THE BIG SHORT and VICE, opting instead for occasional fourth-wall breaking while generally keeping it straightforward and serious.





The Fox News scandal broke in 2016 and BOMBSHELL is already the second 2019 project to tackle Ailes as a subject, following the Showtime limited series THE LOUDEST VOICE, with Russell Crowe as Ailes and Naomi Watts as Gretchen Carlson, the fired Fox News personality who was the first to sue him for sexual harassment. THE LOUDEST VOICE was more about the entire Ailes story, starting with the establishment of Fox News, while BOMBSHELL just deals with the scandal, with the focus being on Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), who finds herself under fire as the film opens in 2015, just after her debate scuffle with Donald Trump that led to his infamous "blood coming out of her...wherever" comment. Ailes (John Lithgow, with prosthetic jowls and a NUTTY PROFESSOR fat suit) sympathizes with the way Trump supporters are raging at her on Twitter, but wants her to play nice, as Fox and Trump are well on their way to a perpetual state of symbiotic co-dependence. At the same time, Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is ruffling feathers on the afternoon dead zone she's been given after being bounced from the highly-rated morning show FOX & FRIENDS, and when she's eventually fired, she decides to blow the doors off the worst-kept secret in the building: that Ailes is a serial sexual harasser and all-around creep, and that the network's "boys club"--the costly harassment settlements of Bill O'Reilly (played here by Kevin Dorff) are unspoken common knowledge among the grunts in the newsroom--has made for a toxic work environment. The mood is also fueled by deranged, right-wing paranoia that comes straight from Ailes, who at one point makes an off-the-cuff remark to his legal team about an Obama White House plot to have him murdered, a comment so batshit crazy that even his attorney Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind) is seen looking away in incredulous discomfort.





The third figure in the story is the most problematic in that she's a wholly fictional creation of Roach and screenwriter Charles Randolph (a co-writer of THE BIG SHORT). Margot Robbie is the improbably-named Kayla Pospisil, a composite character meant to show the kind of treatment given to established vets like Kelly and Carlson when they were ambitious youngsters at the network. Composite characters are very often a necessity with dramatic narrative recreations, and while it's no fault of Robbie's, the script just requires Kayla to be too many things at once. Ostensibly an "evangelical millennial" with a repressed upbringing in a staunchly far-right church family, Kayla is at Fox News to be a voice for young conservatives. She's first shown in a control booth, demonstrating no knowledge of the Eagles or classic rock in general when she puts a photo of Don Henley on the air to accompany a breaking news report on the death of Glenn Frey, blaming the gaffe on "never listening to secular music." The next time we see her, she's telling Carlson that she's leaving her staff to work for O'Reilly (wait...when was she on Carlson's staff in the first place?). Right after that, she's hopping into bed with a closeted lesbian cubicle mate (Kate McKinnon), who's a secret Hillary Clinton supporter. It's rightly disgusting and infuriating when we see ambitious Kayla requesting a meeting with Ailes and ending up being subjected to his degrading requests that she pull up her skirt for him, and the squirm-inducing scene is played very well by Robbie and Lithgow. But Robbie simply can't assemble a believable character out of the wildly disparate pieces she's been given.

Kidman has a good amount of screen time, but her story generally takes a backseat to what goes on with Robbie's Kayla and Theron's Megyn Kelly. Theron is definitely the MVP here, with just the right amount of subtle prosthetics combined with an astonishing mimicry of Kelly's voice, cadence, and speaking style. It's one of the most believable transformations of an actor into a real-life figure in recent memory. There's been some chatter online complaining that the film makes Kelly a hero, but that's another discussion for another time. No one deserves to be a victim of sexual harassment, and BOMBSHELL isn't about Megyn Kelly's dubious comments as a Fox News personality or during her short tenure at NBC. Briskly-paced and well-acted (except for the one scene between Theron and Robbie, which comes off as strangely clunky), with Theron and Lithgow being the standouts, BOMBSHELL also boasts a very large supporting cast, including Malcolm McDowell as Rupert Murdoch, Allison Janney as Ailes attorney Susan Estrich, Spencer Garrett as Sean Hannity, Tony Plana as Geraldo Rivera, a perfectly-cast Alanna Ubach as Judge Jeanine Pirro, Mark Moses as the loathsome Bill Shine, Anne Ramsay as Greta Van Susteren, Bree Condon as a Mean Girl-ish Kimberly Guilfoyle, P.J. Byrne as Neil Cavuto, and Connie Britton as Ailes' endlessly supportive wife, introduced scoffing at an employee for eating "liberal" grocery store sushi. Like RECOUNT, GAME CHANGE, THE BIG SHORT, and VICE, BOMBSHELL is perfectly fine entertainment and it'll almost certainly be up for major awards (Theron and Lithgow are both deserving). But once you get past the dedication and diligence of the performances, do these films have any lasting impact beyond that first viewing? THE BIG SHORT was great, but have I thought "I need to rewatch THE BIG SHORT" even once in the four years since I saw it in the theater?

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