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Cradle Will Rock

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Cradle Will Rock

Starring: Emily Watson, Hank Azaria
Director: Tim Robbins
Rated: R
RunTime: 132 Minutes
Release Date: December 1999
Genre: Drama

Review by UK Critic
2½ stars out of 4

Tim Robbins's "Cradle Will Rock" has many qualities that make us want to like it -- it's ambitious, left-wing, and rich in photography, with a great cast, flamboyant characters, and an interesting setting. But after it's thrown itself into its situation, and sniffed around with a lot of style, it comes out without finding what it was looking for. Although I'm tempted to ignore the movie's failings and recommend it for its politics alone, what would be the point? Liberals don't need to see it to confirm their beliefs, and conservatives are probably beyond hope.

The "(almost) true" story takes place in the 1930s. One of President Roosevelt's schemes to rebuild America was the Federal Theatre Project, intended to employ artists and provide free entertainment for the public. Unfortunately it was formed in a time of heated paranoia about Communism, when Republicans were behaving in a manner that would later be repeated more famously by Joseph McCarthy. The climate of witch-hunting was so ridiculous that the Theatre Project was in danger no matter how benign its productions were. At one point we learn that a children's pantomime called "The Eager Beaver" was accused of being an allegory about proletarian revolution.

While suspicious snitches try to get the theatres in legal trouble, Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen) and John Houseman (Carl Elwes) decide to provoke them, by putting on a play called "The Cradle Will Rock", whose writer is a gay Communist sympathiser, Marc Blitztein (Hank Azaria). The script is said to deal with taboo themes and promote anarchistic ideas. What a stir it should cause!

And does. The film's many characters -- white and blue-collar, male and female, poor and rich, artistic and philistine -- all find themselves somehow arguing about it, one side of the fence or another. At the height of the controversy, a judicial committee sends armed guards to close the playhouse in which the performance is scheduled. FDR would no doubt disapprove, and there is protest, and a way found around the upset, but none of that is the point -- the mere fact that a development like that can happen in the freest country in the world is shocking.

The movie is exuberantly performed, and although the actors' loud, jumpy movements and self-consciously put-on accents often annoy us, they just as frequently create delicious humour, when their characters are caught up in the topsy-turvy atmosphere of collapsing sets, childish arguments and ludicrous obstacles. But somehow "Cradle Will Rock" doesn't quite work. I don't think it's that the comedy undermines the drama; the problem is that the picture is so epic it feels like it's trying to say more than it does. Robbins, who wrote and directed, probably intended a parable about the value of freedom in general. All he's given us is a tale about a show causing a fuss.

Copyright 2000 UK Critic

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