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*** Stars
(US 1999)

Hank Azaria, John Cusack, Joan Cusack, Emily Watson, Rubèn Blades, Cherry Jones, Philip Baker Hall, Vanessa Redgrave, Bill Murray,

Directed by Tim Robbins

Writing credits: Tim Robbins

Touchstone Pictures * 119 minutes

No one ever accused Tim Robbins of being subtle. Of course, no one ever accused Tim Robbins about being less than sincere and passionate about his causes and his politically-oriented films either. In THE CRADLE WILL ROCK, a pastiche of 1930's leftist cultural causes, he has created a film with the virtues of all his passion and the faults of all his sledgehammer heavyhandedness.

john_cusack4.jpg - 47167 BytesIt is 1937, and the Depression is still on. Industrial strikes are breaking out all over. New Deal projects are providing jobs for people, even theatre professionals, in the form of the Federal Theatre project. The Federal Theatre is the common thread linking a variety of interlocking stories: Director Orson Welles (Angus McFadyen) and producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) are attempting to mount a production of Mark Blitzstein's union musical THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones) is the relentlessly upbeat head of the Federal Theatre Project, always on the lookout for something new and important.

diegorivera.jpg - 16738 BytesMeanwhile, Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) commissions artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) to paint a mural in his new Rockefeller Center. Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), a Jew with ties to Mussolini who writes articles for William Randolph Hearts, sells DaVincis to buy steel for the fascist effort in Italy. Gray Mather (Philip Baker Hall) buys said paintings. His somewhat ditzy wife, the Countess LaGrange (Vanessa Redgrave) is a professional patron of the arts, no matter how trivial. Her current protege is an Italian aspiring opera singer (Paul Giamatti, looking as if he just stepped off the set of TOPSY TURVY). Hazel Huffman(Joan Cusack) is a WPA clerk looking to root out Communists in the Federal Theatre Project, assisted by Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), a cynical ventriloquist who sees the project as a threat to vaudeville. Yet the common theme among each of these subplots is the plight of the working man against the ruthless capitalists, culminating in a renegade performance of Blitzstein's musical after the project is shut down by the House Un-American Activities Committee, with armed guards keeping both actors and audience out..

emily_watson8.jpg - 15586 BytesDid you catch all that? If not, this is the fundamental flaw in THE CRADLE WILL ROCK. Robbins has chosen a fascinating piece of history to portray, and he re-creates both the hope and the despair that was America during the Depression. However, there is so much going on, and the storylines cited above are merely the primary ones. There's Theatre Project actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro) and his impoverished family, Emily Watson as homeless aspiring actress Olive Stanton, and a score of others. He tries to do too much, and overall, ends up doing to little, culminating in an unsatisfying end. His acknowledged leftist leanings also have the unfortunate effect of focusing on the most controversial of the Federal Theatre Project's productions -- Blitzstein's musical and another featuring musical beavers that's a thinly-veiled attack on capitalism -- which give the impression that the project really was the hotbed of Communism that certain Washington politicians believed it to be.

Robbins just doesn't know when to stop, and as both writer and director, he believes so strongly in his material that he can't discern when he's creating a powerful scene (as when he echoes the final scene of THE GODFATHER by intercutting scenes of the destruction of Diego Rivera's socialist-depicting mural with the triumphant production of Blitzstein's musical) and when he's hitting you with a sledgehammer (as when depicting Blitzstein's creative processes as hallucinations involving his dead wife and the ghost of Bertold Brecht).

angus_macfadyen5.jpg - 13379 BytesThat said, however, CRADLE is worth seeing as a showcase for some of the best actors in the business. Collecting all of these A-list talents in one film is an achievement in and of itself. Hank Azaria, a marvelous actor who deserves better than just to sing Bob Marley's Jammin' in the voice of Chief Wiggums on THE SIMPSONS, conveys the conflicts that face Blitzstein as he faces the possibility of a successful future. Angus McFadyen, who bears a strong resemblance to Richard Burton in his later, scene-chewing years, is a surprisingly effective, if drunk, pompous, and temperamental Orson Welles. Vanessa Redgrave and the ubiquitous Phillip Baker Hall are marvelous as the steel magnate and his patron-of-the-arts wife, who dabbles in socialism as a hobby. Ruben Blades seems hardly even to be acting as the both politically and artistically passionate Diego Rivera, with John Cusack as a perfect foil, in an interesting interpretation of Nelson Rockefeller as an amalgam of boyish glee and millionaire spoiled-brat rages. applause.jpg - 18939 BytesCherry Jones is infectiously enthusiastic and passionately committed as Hallie Flanagan, and Joan Cusack effective as a clerk who inadvertently destroys the Federal Theatre in her efforts to save it.

Emily Watson and John Turturro do variations of their customary personae. Watson, who is making a career out of playing psychologically fragile tragic figures, is somewhat less mannered than usual in her portrayal of Olive Stanton, the homeless woman turned stagehand turned actress. Turturro is marvelous -- impassioned and powerful as Aldo Silvano, who regards his wife Sophie (Barbara Sukowa) as the true artist in the family for her ability to give him children. His final scenes in this film are just dynamite. Paul Giamatti, interpreter of the most unappealing characters in film, is hilarious in the throwaway role of Carlo the protege.

Yet standing out from even this stellar crew is Bill Murray, as cynical ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw, which is a good thing, because his character is utterly pointless. Murray has one of the most expressive faces in the business, as long as the expressions are bemusement, cynicism, disbelief, exasperation, and exhaustion. billmurray.jpg - 14787 BytesNot since Anthony Hopkins had an entire movie in which to do it in MAGIC has anyone so vividly portrayed the duality of personality required for ventriloquism. When Crickshaw, caked with makeup, having ratted out all of his acquaintances in the business steps on stage to a hostile audience, has even his own dummy turned against him, it's the most devastating portrait of a group stoning of a turncoat since Glenn Close's tear in DANGEROUS LIAISONS.

march.jpg - 20624 BytesThe one tragedy in the film, however, is Cary Elwes' portrayal of the late, great John Houseman as a stereotypical prissy, fastidious British twit homosexual. Whether it is in good taste at all for Robbins to out Houseman at this point, regardless of whether his proclivities may have been an open secret, is beside the point. It's still a broad-brush portrayal, and frankly, I have to wonder what happened to Cary Elwes. Formerly one of those pretty English boys who bursts on the scene out of nowhere in costume pictures such as 1986's LADY JANE, Elwes looked to be a rising star after THE PRINCESS BRIDE. However, he has not only aged badly, but hasn't had a good role since GLORY ten years ago.

With its largely terrific acting and a few very powerful moments, THE CRADLE WILL ROCK could have been a great film. However, it's overly busy interwoven plotlines and sledgehammer messages make it merely a very good film. For those who love to watch masters of acting craft at work, however, this is a real treat.

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Review text copyright © 1999 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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