Written and Directed by Tim Robbins
Starring Hank Azaria, Emily Watson, John Turturro, Bill Murray, Angus MacFadyen
My Advice: Wait and Rent It.
Into the turbulent trying-to-get-our-asses out of the Depression mayhem comes a young composer, Marc Blitzstein (Azaria). He has written a new musical, "Cradle Will Rock," while in an insomniacal state, being advised by visions of both his wife and Bertolt Brecht. He presents it to the Federal Theatre, seeing as how the only way to get live theatre on the boards in those days was through federal funding. There he impresses the hell out of many, including the program's head Hallie (Cherry Jones), producer John Houseman (Cary Elwes) and diva Orson Welles (MacFadyen). They plan on staging it, it goes into production—but there's a hitch. The government is afraid that the musical's pro-union politics will incite a riot or some such. So they shut the theatre down. Undaunted, the company tries to find a way to perform the show anyway, skirting the fine line between the unions who won't cooperate and the government who wants the play stopped. Oh and somewhere along in there, Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) is hired by Ellsworth Toohey (John Cusack) to paint a mural, another worker in the Federal Theatre (Joan Cusack) wants to testify before Congress about communism running rampant in the program, Margherita (Susan Sarandon) wants to support Mussolini, etc etc etc. If I typed out even the tip of the iceberg of a complete plot synopsis, my server would explode.
And that's the problem with Robbins' latest film. It's all over the place. Rather than contenting himself with showing us the plight of the theatrical company struggling to bring on the show with everything else as a background, he wants it all. But as the song says, "You want it all, but you can't have it." Characters have very little, if any, meat on their bones. If they're lucky, they get elevated to caricatures, which is all you get with some of the more notable characters, like Welles and Houseman. Everyone else is relegated to archetypes. Jamey Sheridan plays Union Guy (TM). John Turturro plays Prideful Italian American Guy (TM). Harris Yulin plays Evil Congressman Guy (TM) complete with kung fu grip (TM).
This is a shame, since Robbins does his best to not only give us the feel of the era by use of his production design, but also by mimicry of ye olde cinematic style. The opening unbroken sweep from inside a cinema to out on the street, weaving up and down and around following Olive (Watson) reminded me instantly of Welles' own famous Touch of Evil opening sequence. In fact, the first forty minutes in entirety are very well crafted, but then it all goes to hell with Robbins pounding in the Big Ideas. Struggling artists are good. Wealthy businessmen are evil. Everyone is a whore to some degree, every person has their price. Whoopee. It's such a broad brush that it effectively erases the details that make characters, and ultimately a film, worth caring about. Robbins should have learned something from Rivera's mural that he uses as a Blatant Metaphor (TM): one needs balance. The story, being true, is both compelling and political enough to make his point. But the film becomes a bludgeon and the musical, finally brought off, is a farce. The audience goes berserk every time a character says pretty much anything and it's simply unbelievable—which is funny, since the story is true. Then we get the ending funeral march that leads into the film's final shot, which is pretty much a laughable condemnation of the very industries that financed Robbins to make the film in the first place. But that's okay, because the credits follow hard upon.
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