The poster for “Bombshell” is eerie: three acclaimed actresses — Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie — in extreme closeup, looking weirdly alike. All have expensively blond hair meticulously side-parted and sweeping the right eyebrow; all wear airbrushed makeup with pale lips and dark-lined eyes; all have an expression of composed, faintly steely blankness.
Directed by Jay Roach, “Bombshell” is a based-on-fact story about a scandal at the conservative media empire Fox News, centered on a trio of two real-life characters — former Fox news correspondent Megyn Kelly (Theron) and former “Fox & Friends” co-host Gretchen Carlson (Kidman) — and one fictional one, Kayla Pospisil (Robbie), a self-described “evangelical millennial” determined to rise through the ranks at Fox. All of them must contend with Fox founder Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), a serial sexual harasser who rules the network’s universe and who treats women as objects available for his pleasure.
This sounds, on the face of it, like a terrific premise for a movie: a story both dramatic and timely, and a celebrated cast more than able to jolt it to life. But something went wrong on the way to “Bombshell,” and much of it is Charles Randolph’s cutesy screenplay, which features multiple voice-overs commenting on the action — which unfolds at a snappy, cartoony pace more suitable to a dark comedy. (This would be fine if that was what “Bombshell” set out to be, but it isn’t particularly funny.) Roach gives it the ugly flatness of a not-too-expensive television movie — and, worse, seems to have little interest in the three women at the story’s center. Things happen to them, sometimes awful things (a scene between Kayla and Ailes is sickening), but the movie just keeps moving on, unwilling to examine what impact these events might have had on these three very complicated women.
You watch “Bombshell” enjoying the cast, particularly Kate McKinnon in a small role (is there no movie she can’t light up?) and Theron, as she makes sleek music from Kelly’s husky voice — you get a sense, from this elegant woman’s posture and polish, of what armor she had to build up to get where she is. But ultimately, the film’s unwillingness to go deeper makes it fall flat. “Bombshell” has, like that poster, a blankness at its core.
★★“Bombshell,” with Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman, Margot Robbie, John Lithgow, Kate McKinnon, Connie Britton, Malcolm McDowell, Alison Janney. Directed by Jay Roach, from a screenplay by Charles Randolph. 108 minutes. Rated R for sexual material and language throughout. Opens Dec. 20 at multiple theaters.