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‘Bombshell’ a messy but fascinating depiction of complexities of sexual harassment, fallout in post-#MeToo era

Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie in “Bombshell.” (Lionsgate)
Charlize Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie in “Bombshell.” (Lionsgate)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

In one of her first declarations in “Bombshell,” former Fox News star Megyn Kelly (portrayed uncannily by Charlize Theron) lays out exactly who she is. “I’m not a feminist,” she claims, “I’m a lawyer.”

That’s the tricky line walked in the film written by Charles Randolph and directed by Jay Roach, which depicts the sexual harassment case brought by women at the network that toppled conservative news mastermind Roger Ailes in 2016.

This isn’t an uplifting girl-power tale or a comedy or a thriller, though sometimes it seems like it could be all of those things. Rather, it is more challenging and genre-defying: a legal procedural about how to successfully report sexual harassment inside a cultlike conservative bureaucracy.

This is a spiky, morally complex tale that doesn’t ask the audience to love or even like the women at the center of the story but to fully see they’re humans fighting to be treated as such (an inherently feminist concept even if they won’t claim it).

Navigating the thorny ethics might prove to be a tall order for audiences as Kelly, of “White Santa” fame, is hard to side with. Producer and star Theron knows this, and she doesn’t flatten her into one thing or the other. She’s an intense person, unabashedly ambitious and often arrogant.

At one point, she says to her husband (Mark Duplass), “Tell me my big mouth didn’t ruin our life,” as he ruefully replies, “Not yet.” Oh, the irony. This knotty depiction is at times at odds with the perspective of “Bombshell,” which attempts to be intimate yet broad.

The characters address the camera as if to a friend, offering a tour of the building or whispering asides like secrets to a cherished confidant. We get access to their internal monologues, and sometimes we’re flies on the wall, witnesses to the chilling acts committed in the inner sanctum of Roger Ailes’ (John Lithgow) office.

“Bombshell” wants the audience to be with these women inside their heads, but we also have to contend with the all-too-real reality of their dubious political rhetoric and those consequences. At times it’s a bit too intricate for the film to bear.

The film is at its strongest during the whispered interactions between the women of Fox who are either victims terrified to report, defenders of this system built on the degradation of women or both. For too long, Kelly lands in that gray area.

A scene between Kelly and young Fox News staffer Kayla (a composite character played by Margot Robbie) highlights Kelly’s own burden of responsibility in her failure to help prevent Ailes’ continued abuse through her inaction and silence. Buying into the culture of Fox may have made her a star, but it was at the expense of her own and others’ abuse.

“Bombshell” doesn’t quite work if you’re looking for someone to like. The guileless and charming self-proclaimed millennial evangelical Kayla comes close. And Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman), the very first to report Ailes after she’s fired, armed with a detailed record of harassment, comes off well.

But this is Kelly’s movie, and, with her at the center, “Bombshell” actively denies our natural desire for identification with a hero. She occupies a space that is hero, victim and at times, villain, and it’s a bold move for Theron and the filmmakers to make Kelly as challenging as she is.

Anchored by an outstanding trio of performances, “Bombshell” manages to be a fascinating depiction of the complexities of workplace sexual harassment and the legal ramifications that are necessary to contend with in the post-#MeToo era.

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