Cradle Will Rock

dir-scr Tim Robbins
with Emily Watson, Bill Murray, Hank Azaria, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Angus MacFadyen, Susan Sarandon, Cherry Jones, John Turturro, Vanessa Redgrave, Ruben Blades, Cary Elwes John Carpenter, Gretchen Mol, Philip Baker Hall, Bob Balaban, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Giamatti, Barbara Sukowa, Barnard Hughes
Touchstone 99/US 2 out of 5 stars

With a cast that would make even Woody Allen do a double take, Tim Robbins' ambitious Cradle Will Rock tackles very big ideas and an extremely turbulent yet little-known chapter of American history. And it's an utter shambles. OK, it's staggeringly well made and features some excellent performances. But the story is far too jumbled for anything to really work.

The "(mostly) true story" in a nutshell: It's the mid-1930s, and the American government has established a Federally funded theatre group to get artists back to work after the Great Depression. Marc Blitzstein (Azaria) has written a musical called The Cradle Will Rock, about workers unions threatening the overwhelming power of the capitalists, and the New York theatre is enthusiastically preparing for opening night, including an inexperienced young starlet (Watson) and her leading man (Turturro), manic director Orson Welles (MacFayden), loud-mouthed John Houseman (Elwes), and the feisty theatre director (Jones). And there are lots and lots of subplots involving characters both famous and fictitious.

The film leaps between storylines, keeping us interested but never giving us anything to cling to. Robbins seems a bit too pleased by the first-rate design elements--he can't resist sweeping camera movement when a still shot would serve the scene much better. Some characters are very entertaining (John Cusack's Hearst, Sarandon's Italian vixen) and others are quite moving (Murray's lonely vaudevillian, Joan Cusack's morally troubled theatre worker). Some of the actors are excellent (most notably Watson, Murray and the Cusacks), while others are far too cartoonish (most dreadfully Elwes, Redgrave and MacFayden). But it's the film's chaotic assembly that leaves everything fragmented and uninvolving. Yes, there's an overriding theme about artistic vision and standing up for what's right, regardless of political affiliations. But we really have to work to get even that out of this muddled, bewildering mess.

[15--themes, language, brief nudity] 12.Nov.99
US release 24.Dec.99; UK release 21.Apr.00

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1999 by Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall