Dramatization of real-life scandal could be better

BombshellTrio
Megyn Kelly, Gretchen Carlson and Kayla Pospisil (Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie, from left) share an elevator ride in Bombshell. (Lionsgate)

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.

BombshellTheronLithgow
Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) takes a walk with her boss, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow). (Photo by Hilary B Gayle)

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.

Conversion therapy’s true nature outed in ‘Boy Erased’

BOY ERASED
Nancy Eamons (Nicole Kidman) comforts her conflicted son, Jared (Lucas Hedges), in Boy Erased. (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

By Richard Ades

Most of us know gay conversion therapy is a hoax that preys on the fears of gay people and their families, especially those whose religion rejects non-traditional sexual orientations. What most of us don’t know—unless we’ve been unlucky enough to go through it—is just how this therapy attempts to bring about its unlikely transformation.

One person who does know is Gerrard Conley, whose parents pushed him into conversion therapy and who subsequently wrote Boy Erased, a memoir about his experience. The book has been brought to the big screen in a tale that is both harrowing and illuminating.

Directed by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay and portrays a key supporting character, the flick begins by spelling out the dilemma faced by its teenage protagonist.

Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) is the son of a Baptist preacher in a conservative Arkansas community. In an early scene, the Rev. Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) stops in the middle of a sermon to ask those who are imperfect to raise their hands. Of course, everyone does, but Jared seems to ponder the question before joining in. Maybe he’s already worried about the troubling thoughts he has hidden from others and barely acknowledges himself.

On the surface, Jared appears to be a “normal” kid. He even has a girlfriend, whom his father and mother, Nancy (Nicole Kidman), fully expect to become his future wife. They’re disappointed when Jared breaks up with her before going off to college.

But their real shock comes when they receive an anonymous phone call from someone on campus who accuses their son of homosexual leanings. Jared initially denies the charge but eventually admits it may be true. Faced with an ultimatum from his father—change or be ostracized from the family—he agrees to give conversion therapy a try.

Jared’s first days in the program seem harmless enough. Instructors led by Victor Sykes (director Edgerton in a restrained but creepy performance) try to reason the participants out of their sexual preference. You’re not born gay, they’re told, any more than athletic participant Cameron (Britton Sear) was born wanting to play football. And if you choose to be gay, the argument goes, you can choose to stop being gay.

It’s not long, though, before Jared begins noticing signs that the therapy is neither as effective nor as benign as he’d hoped. A fellow participant urges him to simply play along with the program in order to convince the instructors he’s on his way to a cure. But playing along becomes more difficult when increasingly coercive measures are used to achieve the desired results.

The film reveals Jared’s state of mind with the help of well-placed flashbacks to times when he was torn between his religious beliefs and his sexual longings. He dearly wants to change in order to remain part of his family, but his faith in the therapy falters as his experiences at the clinic become more and more nightmarish. The resulting tension builds to a wrenching climax.

This earnest tale is told with the help of a cast that is almost uniformly fine. I seldom find Kidman’s portrayals completely convincing, but she’s at least adequate as Jared’s concerned mother. Meanwhile, Hedges wins our sympathy as Jared, and Crowe does a fine job of convincing us the Rev. Eamons is a caring parent despite the hell he puts his son through.

Because the story is based on actual people, it ends by relating what eventually happens to the characters’ real-life counterparts. Some of the developments are uplifting, and at least one is surprising. Or maybe it won’t be to those who are good at reading between the lines.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Boy Erased (rated R) opened Nov. 15 at the Gateway Film Center and AMC Lennox Town Center 24.