Cradle Will Rock

Directed by Tim Robbins
Starring: Hank Azaria, Rubén Blades, Joan Cusack, Cherry Jones, Angus MacFayden, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, John Turturro, Emily Watson.
MPAA Rating: R for some language and sexuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
January 5, 2000

Besides being a top leading actor, Tim Robbins has had great success as a director. The first two films that he wrote and directed, Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking, are two of the best films of the past decade. Not only are they brilliant, but they are extremely different from each other. His third time in the chair, however, has not turned out as well.

In the mid-1930's, FDR's New Deal provided all sorts of social work programs, including the Federal Theatre Project, which helped stage actors find work in the Great Depression, and brought low-cost theatre to the public. At the same time, many artists were leaning to the left while right-wing fascists were coming to power in Europe. To conservative Middle America, fascists were preferable to communists, and they didn't want their federal tax money supporting plays that promoted unions and criticized capitalism. Of course, that's exactly what they got.

Orson Welles (Angus MacFayden) and John Houseman (Cary Elwes) ran one of these federally-funded companies, and one of their productions was The Cradle Will Rock, a radical musical by Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria). The head of the FTP, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), was under congressional investigation as a suspected communist, so the whole program was in jeopardy. Other artists had similar trouble, including Diego Rivera (Rubén Blades), who was commissioned to paint a mural for Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), but his proletarian vision was not appreciated.

This would seem like the perfect film for Robbins -- his Shakespeare in Love. Unfortunately, to quote a line from the film, it's "indulgent, masturbatory nonsense." That was a criticism of the play within the film, and he must have known that Cradle Will Rock was turning out the same way (he was virtually begging me to quote that line). It's full of big stars, and takes on an interesting story, but it just falls flat, despite being whimsically over-the-top.

How he managed to pull that off is a mystery. Maybe it's because these people are too close to our time, and this portrayal is just too difficult to swallow. The film admits at the beginning to be "based on a (mostly) true story." Robbins obviously knows a lot about that time in history, but he couldn't find the right note to re-create it. Obviously, nitpicking about historical accuracy is futile, but it's too much like a satire to be believed and too much like a political "message" film to be funny.

Instead of such an ambitious effort, he should have probably scaled it down to follow one of the many sub-plots in detail. Performances by Bill Murray and Vanessa Redgrave are the highlights, and either of those characters could have anchored a much better film. Hopefully, Robbins will get over this post-sophomore slump and get back to basics.

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Cradle Will Rock (1999)

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan