That Bombshell wants to be The Big Short would be embarrassingly obvious anyway, but the fact that Charles Randolph wrote both films seals the deal. No question about it, this The Big Short of #MeToo biopics; the Vice of #MeToo biopics might even actually be more accurate, but I don't want to be too hard on Bombshell. It's boring and bad, but at least it's better than fucking Vice.

It is also less interesting than Vice, and that starts getting us someplace. Adam McKay's recent turn to making cinematic Voxsplainers might be fairly annoying and artless, and his putative sense of humor in executing this films is most definitely shrill and smug beyond words; but he is making the movies he sets out to. He knows what he's doing, I mean to say, even when what he's doing is ill-advised. With Bombshell we have the dreary mediocrity of an Adam McKay film directed by somebody who doesn't know how to be Adam McKay. Specifically, by Jay Roach, who has a cozy number of credits on films based on true stories about politics, the last one of which was the Blacklist exposé Trumbo, and that's entirely telling. Imagine Vice cross-bred with Trumbo. Bombshell is very likely better than the movie you're imagining, if you're anything like me, but that's the ugly little neighborhood we're stuck working in.

Bombshell is, in a very loose sense, the true story of how several women, most notably Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), a major star of the Fox News network in the mid-2010s, shared their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of Roger Ailes (John Lithgow), then the CEO and chairman of the network. I say "in a loose sense" not because that doesn't happen, but because it would be paying the film an awfully large unearned compliment to suggest that it's proceeding in that direction in any kind of focused way. This is a sloppy movie: sloppy in its form, sloppy in its narrative construction. Pared down, there are three plotlines: Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), who has been coming closer and closer to mouthing actual feminist beliefs on the air, is fired, and she takes this opportunity to finally sue Ailes for a career's worth of harassment; Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a fictional staffer who is used to summarise several real-life women's experiences without implicating any of them individually, is angling hard to get a job on the air, and finds that the road to getting that leads through Ailes's office behind a closed door; and Kelly starts to get pissed off at Donald Trump as he blusters his way through the Republican presidential primary. Later, she sidles into the other two plotlines as the most crucial possible witness against Ailes. The experience of watching it makes this, if anything, even worse: the main feeling I got was that I was basically just hanging out with Kelly as she has a very shitty 2016, and occasionally that coalesced into the material of a message movie. And that's without mentioning all the other clutter, like the way the film more or less openly states that the real heroes of the moment are Rupert Murdoch's sons, who personally hated Ailes and maneuvered the women into taking him down as part of an internecine political battle within News Corp. Which is an awful approach for the movie to take on at least two counts.

So anyway, it's shaggy and shapeless and it really only has a message because the filmmakers get us as far as the moment that Ailes was fired and then stop, suggesting that this was the narrative goal all along, somewhat in contradiction to the evidence of the opening act. That's just lazy writing attempting to force a dramatic structure on a reality that wasn't nearly that clean, the basic stuff of lousy biopics. I really can't come up with any explanation at all for how meandering and empty the film's form is, unless it's that Roach started off with a bunch of ideas and got bored with them, one by one. There is the film's approach to voiceover, for starters: Kelly is telling us the story from after the end point, and she uses acerbic, ironic language to suggest that she knows she's communicating information as a character in a movie. Standard Adam McKay knock-off territory, I'd say. But then we hear the voiceover of a few other women characters, presented as real-time thoughts; we also get some of this from Kelly herself. And then, at a relatively early point, we stop getting any voice-over at all.

It's the most transparent "throw everything at the all and see what sticks" approach to filmmaking, and there are other, less-transparent examples scattered throughout Bombshell to keep it company. The one that made me want to throw something at the screen was the utterly baffling strategy for depicting real-life media figures. Of whom there are a great many in this tale about life at a major television news network in the faraway days of 2016. Generally, the more important a character is to the plot (so, Kelly, Carlson, Ailes), the more likely it is that we'll see them only embodied by an actor. Donald Trump is only ever played by stock footage. Things get wobbly in the case of e.g. Bill O'Reilly, who is played by stock footage when we see his program, and by Kevin Dorff when we see him backstage. It's complicated and distracting as hell; though honestly, I don't think the film was ever going to land on a good strategy for dealing with famous walk-on characters, given how uniformly badly they're brought in (special notice must go to Richard Kind's absolutely unforgivable impersonation of Rudy Giuliani, and I say that as somebody who is almost always delighted to see Kind show up).

The whole film has that vague sense of experimentation without any follow-through; my strong feeling is that Roach didn't want to put in the work of being in any way reflective or disciplined about his choices, so he just tried shit until he got bored. The result is no good for Bombshell at all, murdering its sense of cohesiveness and obscuring its narrative. Really, the only positive strengths are some of its leads: Lithgow, Theron, and Kidman, probably in that order. Kidman has individual moments stronger than Theron, but Theron is definitely more consistent, even though she rarely bothers drilling down into who Megyn Kelly is, as a human.

That's also a weakness of Bombshell, its relatively straightforward way of dealing with characters' personalities. This movie doesn't want to bother with messiness, which raises the question of why tell this story at all: the inherent messiness of employees of Fox News, a corporation avowedly opposed to making it easier for victims of sexual harassment to tell their stories, finding themselves pushing back against the culture they've help construct is far and away the most dramatically compelling part of the whole affair. But that assumes that compelling drama was the aim, and nothing about Bombshell supports that assumption. Sure, the film tries to complicate this with a closeted Democratic lesbian, and with Kayla's chipper references back to her evangelical upbringing, but it doesn't try very hard. It doesn't try to do anything very hard. It just wants to do a quick ripped-from-the-headlines story with strong political overtones in the most superficial style it can grab, but there's no treating this story with that kind of slackness. Either you take time to dig in, do it right, confront the difficult complexities, and give the whole story a troubling moral weight, or you just string together a bunch of anecdotes with Theron, Kidman, and Lithgow providing colorful caricatures of famous people to make it all tirivally zippy until the time comes for it to become self-consciously solemn, and accept that it's going to be shallow and flat. Bombshell made its decision to take the latter route early on, and there's no going back after that.