By Richard Ades
Bombshell isn’t a complete dud, but neither is it as effective as it could be. Perhaps that’s because it spreads too little explosive power over too wide an area.
The flick is designed as an expose of Fox News and particularly of the sexual-harassment charges that in 2016 brought down chairman and CEO Roger Ailes. On the way there, however, it stops to explain such things as how Fox and President Donald J. Trump became joined at the hip, and why the network’s women journalists tend to be pretty blondes in short skirts.
It also attempts to tell a tale of feminist empowerment, but its ability to inspire is stymied by the fact that most of the female characters display more loyalty to their careers than to each other. Further weakening the message is the film’s tone, which wanders haphazardly between drama and spoofery.
Maybe director Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Meet the Fockers) was not the right person to helm this ambitious take on a real-life scandal. Or maybe Charles Randolph was not the right person to write it, even though he co-wrote a much better historical expose, 2015’s The Big Short.
But the cast, at least, is perfect.
Particularly laudable is Charlize Theron’s impersonation of Megyn Kelly, whose questioning of Trump’s misogynistic tendencies during a 2015 presidential debate made her the target of his unquenchable fury. Kelly serves as the story’s main narrator, which is a mixed blessing.
As a prominent Fox talent, she is well-suited to explaining the company’s power structure, including the fact that Ailes ultimately answers to owner Rupert Murdoch and his sons. But, like her real-life counterpart, Theron’s Kelly is difficult to like. When the scandal begins unfolding, she reacts as the lawyer she is, refusing to get involved until she’s had a chance to weigh the evidence—and the risk to herself.
More relatable is fellow newswoman Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who is fired after doing such un-Fox-like things as appearing on air without makeup and calling for assault weapons to be banned. She subsequently sues Ailes for sexual harassment and surprised to find that none of his other victims is eager to follow her lead.
Those other victims include Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), an ambitious producer and self-described “evangelical millennial” who receives a first-hand lesson in Ailes’s tendency to hide sexual innuendo under a demand that she prove her “loyalty.” (Kayla, one of the story’s few fictional characters, is said to be based on several former Fox employees.)
The decrepit Ailes himself is played by a barely recognizable John Lithgow as an executive who has been manipulating women for so long that he seems genuinely surprised when his behavior becomes a legal matter.
Bombshell reveals several interesting historical tidbits, including the antipathy that Fox’s bigwigs originally held for the upstart Trump. It also includes a few laughs, though they don’t always work to the film’s benefit.
When Kayla falls into bed with co-worker Jess Carr (SNL’s Kate McKinnon), their relationship is defined by light banter that makes no attempt to explain why the evangelical Kayla has so little trouble squaring lesbian sex with her religious beliefs.
Other laughs are engendered by the appearance of stand-ins for rascally celebrities such as Rudy Giuliani (Richard Kind) and Geraldo Rivera (Tony Plana). In such cases, the movie’s uncanny impersonations undermine the story by shoving it unceremoniously into spoof territory.
Bombshell benefits from a strong cast and a subject that is both timely and fascinating. If it hadn’t been weakened by so-so execution, it might have lived up to its name.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Bombshell (rated R) opens Dec. 20 at theaters nationwide.