The misleading trailer for “Bombshell” makes the misbegotten movie look like an amusingly updated #MeToo era reboot of “9 to 5.” That actually may have been preferable to this cheesy yet somehow insufficiently trashy account of the sexual harassment scandal that ended the career of Roger Ailes, the monstrously misogynist former head of Fox News. Instead of presenting three woke women co-workers joining forces to take down their 21st-century Dabney Coleman with slapstick style, “Bombshell” plays like a drearily padded made-for-TV yawner, with occasional, tiresomely obvious, “SNL”-level political one-liners.
The movie also makes the bafflingly wrongheaded mistake of adding a completely fictional major character and a ridiculously phony minor one to what is billed as an “inspired by actual events” narrative. Margot Robbie’s wide-eyed Fox News producer Kayla Pospisil, despite never existing in this plane of reality, is literally the only character shown suffering any on-screen degradation (“lift your skirt … higher”) or discussing giving in to actual sexual demands from Ailes. She also plays an important role in joining the ranks of the victimized. And as a crucifix-wearing conservative, she naturally is so pop-culture clueless that she can’t tell Glenn Frey from Don Henley, because the Eagles aren’t a Christian rock band.
The minor but more outrageously preposterous fake character is Fox News producer Jess Carr (Kate McKinnon), a closeted lesbian liberal with posters of Hillary Clinton in her kitchen. That’s how desperate the makers of this movie apparently were to inject someone they could present as the voice of reason among what they regard as all of the automatically reprehensible right-wingers at Fox. She even manages to seduce a female Fox true believer into joining her in bed — because if you’re not real in the first place, absolutely anything can happen. Right?
Those huge dollops of deceit completely undercut both the credibility and even the message of the movie by allowing it to be dismissed as politically expedient fiction. Likewise, the film presents every Fox News employee as either naïve, stupid, cynical, misguided, or outright evil. Despite this, the movie never seems clever enough to work as effective satire, even though it is too unconvincing to be taken seriously.
Two Stellar Performances
That’s too bad, because two of the performances here are excellent. Charlize Theron does a shockingly good impersonation of Megyn Kelly and is also a jaw-dropping lookalike for the Fox News host. Kelly’s testily adversarial relationship with then-candidate Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election is complicated by the fact that her boss, Ailes, was a Trump backer, but Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch was not.
John Lithgow is hiss-worthily grotesque as the insultingly vile Ailes, who says would-be on-air females should show off their physical attributes in his office because “TV is a visual medium.” He also stresses the importance of loyalty, while unsubtly asking potential hires to “find a way to prove it.” As for performance reviews, Ailes points out that “nobody wants to watch a middle-aged woman sweat her way through menopause.”
Nicole Kidman is Fox host Gretchen Carlson, who starts the harassment-suit ball rolling after getting fired. Strangely, the aggrieved Carlson comes off like a mere supporting player who soon is relegated mostly to scenes with her lawyers, while the movie’s primary focus is on the flashier and more conflicted Kelly.
‘Bombshell’ vs. ‘The Loudest Voice’
That raises another important issue regarding the project’s veracity. Earlier this year, Showtime aired the excellent seven-episode series “The Loudest Voice,” covering many of the same real-life events chronicled in “Bombshell.” It was adapted from the book “The Loudest Voice in the Room” by Gabriel Sherman, who wrote and executive produced the series (and who is portrayed briefly in “Bombshell”). Meaningfully, Sherman did not even include Megyn Kelly as a cast member in the Showtime series. According to an interview in The Hollywood Reporter, Sherman noted, “Megyn Kelly was a peripheral participant in Ailes’ downfall. … Any dramatization that makes her a central character in Ailes’ takedown is pure fiction.”
In fact, it’s impossible not to compare the barely fizzling “Bombshell” to the more viciously nasty and engrossing “The Loudest Voice.” As the center-stage and justifiably paranoid Carlson in “The Loudest Voice,” Naomi Watts was more believable, interesting, and sympathetic than Kidman’s aloof Carlson, who seems only mildly concerned and peeved about her situation. While Lithgow is a more convincing Ailes appearance-wise, Russell Crowe’s version in “The Loudest Voice” had more villainously self-righteous and blustering charisma. The dueling Rupert Murdochs are a quietly resolute Malcolm McDowell in “Bombshell” versus the more reptilian Simon McBurney in “The Loudest Voice.”
Also, a major character who played a significant role in the Ailes drama is missing entirely from “Bombshell.” There is no mention of his mistreated and miserable longtime mistress Laurie Luhn (Annabelle Wallis in “The Loudest Voice”), a former Fox News staffer who later filed her own mega-millions lawsuit against the company.
‘Bombshell’ Misses the Mark
“Austin Powers” trilogy director Jay Roach, whose last two efforts were 2015’s Dalton Trumbo biography “Trumbo” and the 2012 Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis political satire “The Campaign,” never brings much life to a story that relies too much on spoken references to past events instead of providing scenes showing them. Not a single garter-belt shot, even though they’re a favorite fetish of leg-man Ailes? For shame.
Screenwriter Charles Randolph co-wrote 2015’s “The Big Short,” which managed to make the 2005 mortgage market meltdown entertaining. He doesn’t work the same magic here, relying too much on flat liberal laugh lines that barely rise to the level of stale Stephen Colbert snarkiness.
Discussing his stewardship of Fox News, Ailes at one point explains, “News is like a ship. You take your hands off the wheel, and it pulls to the left.” “Bombshell” could have benefited from similar guidance, which may have made the movie more honest — not to mention more fair and balanced.