Director: Jay Roach
Stars: Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, Charlize Theron
We are in the midst of a very slow-moving sea change in how women are treated and depicted in the entertainment industry. I kind of hate that it’s only taken me two sentences to get to Harvey Weinstein, but here we are. His name may have become the most notorious, but he’s certainly not alone. Not by a long shot. There are many, many stories. FOX News honcho Roger Ailes is one such example. But how do we tell these stories, and who gets to tell them?
Bombshell is a film that strives to jump on a bandwagon. That’s not a word I’d use to describe #MeToo or the bravery of the women coming forward with their stories, but it is a word I’d apply to a piece of disingenuous art. The bandwagon that Bombshell has attached itself to is the post-Big Short Oscar hustle.
The Big Short was directed by Adam McKay and came as a big surprise. Before it, McKay was known for his work with improv comics, and had brought us both Anchorman films. That was his bread and butter. It’s admiral to branch out, and for McKay it worked (that time). But the success and respect afforded him drew others out to catch the warmth of the same rays. Gross-out comedy peddler Peter Farrelly got all earnest and gifted us the lukewarm and patronising Green Book. Even the Academy couldn’t quite stomach nominating him for Best Director, but the boys’ club still gifted the movie Best Picture.
Now along comes Jay Roach, director of the Austin Powers franchise (lets be fair, two good comedies and a stinker); movies which wrapped star Mike Myers in a variety of latex make-up jobs to play multiple characters, including Dr. Evil and the odious Fat Bastard. Roach, it seems, saw his peers getting to put their tuxes on and decided he wanted a piece of that action. He helms Bombshell, a conspicuously Big Short-esque pry behind the curtain of FOX News during a sexual harassment scandal. Screenwriter Charles Randolph co-wrote The Big Short with McKay. He pickpockets virtually all of that film’s then-charming gimmicks and brings them over here. This is a forth-wall busting, glibly narrated exposé, one that leans hard on irony and sarcasm to make its subject easier to digest. Roach, meanwhile, brings the fat suits.
Roach’s leads are distractingly plastered in heavy prosthetics. John Lithgow is rendered as a blubbery Fat Bastard-style mass to play Roger Ailes. Nicole Kidman gets her face squared and is encumbered with an horrendous wig to appear at strident and principled newscaster Gretchen Carlson. Charlize Theron is similarly lost under make-up as anchor Megyn Kelly. None of this is necessary. Actors shouldn’t need to be recast as Spitting Image puppets. It acts as a barrier to our involvement at all times. Not only that, but it is counter-productive when considering the faux-documentary stylings that Roach also steals from McKay’s film.
Of course the film’s youthful starlet Margot Robbie appears as is. It’s questionable whether the sexual preferences of Robbie’s Kayla Pospisil are even pertinent to the story, yet they’re layered in thick before she is made to feel degraded by Ailes. There’s an insidious undercurrent suggesting that she only feels uncomfortable because she is gay. Not long after, Bombshell conflates allegations of sexual harassment with Ailes’ own post-911 panic. The scenes are next door to one another.
The film is mainly glib, but even Roach registers that this is a serious subject. The problem is that when he then swerves into laboured sincerity, it reads as false. You’re left waiting for someone to make another remark like, “I’d love to be slut shamed”.
It’s also impossible to ignore how FOX News’ reprehensible approach to integrity in journalism is sorta jokingly swept under the carpet here. Anyone complaining about their practices or prying seriously into their awesome and troubling influence is labelled a liberal and discredited. There’s a strange sense of conflict in the film’s DNA. It comes from a liberal position. It aims to assist in the conflicts faced by women in the workplace. But it also wants to placate those on the other side of the fence, too. It feels fatally conflicted in how to be liked by all.
The film is horrendous to look at, largely down to the harsh edits and grotesque whip-pans, all in service of the verite style that it has no interest in actually committing to. And underneath all of it is the constant feeling that Roach’s concern isn’t primarily to serve these women at all, but to get a piece of that Big Short pie, making this the very worst kind of Oscar bait.
Bombshell is ugly trash. You might well argue that it is entirely fitting that it’s so ugly considering the subject matter, and that Roach has handed us a meta roll in the muck, rendered deliberately disingenuous as a kind of next-level critique of the broadcast journalism he is otherwise loath to question, but frankly that requires too much credit.
Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. There’s toil from all departments. But Bombshell genuinely feels like a story that deserved to be told by someone else. If there’s a small glimmer of importance here, its the notion that we can’t let progress become a fad, a soundbite, a news cycle.
“All audiences want is authenticity,” Ailes says. Yeah, a little bit would be nice.