Cradle Will Rock

on December 10, 1999 by Wade Major
An ambitious attempt to blend the spirit of a '30s era screwball comedy with the conscience of a '60s era protest film meets with only limited success in Tim Robbins' "Cradle Will Rock," an off-kilter ensemble comedy/drama that bears the same unmistakable ideological parallelism as his previous writing/directing efforts, "Bob Roberts" and "Dead Man Walking."
   Based on true events, the film follows more than a dozen characters--both real and fictional--as they navigate the inauspicious corridors of New York's depression-era art and theater worlds. At the eye of the storm is a young and hopelessly naïve Orson Welles (Angus MaFadyen), whose short-sighted ambitions get the better of him when he unwisely throws precious Federal Theater funds behind playwright Marc Blitzstein's (Hank Azaria) incendiary pro-labor musical, "The Cradle Will Rock." Elsewhere, Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) battles with pro-Communist artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) over the content of a Rockefeller Center entranceway mural while Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall) connives with former Mussolini mistress Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon) to earn money off the doomed Italian dictator before war officially breaks off their dealings. Other stories relate the tribulations of anti-Communists like Works Progress Administration clerk Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) and aging Vaudevillian ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), whose calls for closer government attention to perceived communist infiltration of the Federal Theater agenda lead to unforeseen layoffs and censorship, worsening a bad situation and ostracizing them from their peers.
   On the periphery of these proceedings are such figures as William Randolph Hearst (John Carpenter), John Houseman (Cary Elwes) and Comtess LaGrange (Vanessa Redgrave), among others--all helping give a semblance of structure to what Robbins sees as a historic turning point in the annals of conscience and free speech. And to be fair to Robbins, it is a monumentally ambitious effort that demonstrates a keen historical and analytical mind. Unfortunately, in his enthusiasm to both educate and entertain, Robbins has grossly overreached his abilities to formulate a digestible narrative, piling on stories, characters, issues and political debate such that the film begins to feel incomprehensibly and oppressively dense. It is as though one had been force-fed a gourmet meal and then commanded to appreciate it. Invariably, many of the lesser stories get lost in the confusion, including two that center on the plight of Federal Theater actors--John Turturro as a staunchly anti-Fascist Italian-American, and Emily Watson as an aspiring actress/singer befriended by future film actor John Adair (Jamey Sheridan).
   At nearly two-and-a-quarter hours, "Cradle Will Rock" might also have benefited from some judicious editing, particularly during the climactic "staging" of the titular banned play, which feels at times as though it is being played out in its entirety. If the film has a saving grace, it is Robbins' trademark sense of fairness to both sides of any given issue. As with "Bob Roberts" and "Dead Man Walking," Robbins never shies from making it clear where he personally stands. Yet, at the same time, he goes to great lengths to present all relevant ideological arguments, allowing them to be aired with praiseworthy objectivity.
   Also of note are the film's performances, which range from good to MacFadyen's stunningly dead-on impersonation of Welles--a portrayal that verges on campiness, yet still manages to capture both the spirit of the man and his work. Starring Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Cary Elwes, Philip Baker Hall, Cherry Jones, Angus MacFadyen, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro and Emily Watson. Directed and written by Tim Robbins. Produced by Jon Kilik, Lydia Dean Pilcher and Tim Robbins. A Buena Vista release. Drama/Comedy. Rated R for some language and sexuality. Running time: 134 min
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