THE CRADLE WILL ROCK tells the "(mostly) true story" of a federally
funded musical of the same name that was shut down by the government on
the day it was to open. It later became well known after its director,
Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen), became famous.
It's the 1930s -- the time of the Great Depression. Among the many
government public works activities is the Federal Theater Project, which
employs out-of-work actors as well as stage crew. "The Cradle Will
Rock" by playwright Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) tells a pro-union
story, which infuriates Congressman Dies (Harris Yulin), among others.
They suspect Communist infiltration in the arts, and Chairman Dies's
subcommittee holds hearings on the subject.
This might lead one to believe that the film is a hard-hitting
indictment of politics run amuck, but it isn't. Writer and director Tim
Robbins has hired half of his Hollywood friends to appear in his
three-ring circus of a movie. Everything is rushed. Actors run onto
the set, rattle off their lines and run off again. Robbins then quickly
cuts to an entirely different group of actors telling another part of
the story. Adding to the unrealistic, circus-like atmosphere of the
production is a pair of lovers who have a propensity to sneak away,
remaining in view of the others and the camera, as they disrobe and have
Among the many stereotyped characters in the cluttered script are: A
giddy liberal socialite, Countess LaGrange (Vanessa Redgrave), who gets
her strike news delivered on a silver platter by her servants. An
anti-Communist ventriloquist, Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), who is
forced by his employer (the federal government in the form of the WPA)
to tutor two no-talent, would-be ventriloquists. An alcoholic director
(Welles), who is so hyperactive that his feet rarely touch the ground.
And an artist, Diego Rivera (Rubén Blades), who insists on putting an
unauthorized image on Lenin in his large mural inside a skyscraper owned
by Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack).
The rest of the large and talented cast includes Joan Cusack, Cary
Elwes, Philip Baker Hall, Cherry Jones, Susan Sarandon, Jamey Sheridan,
John Turturro, Emily Watson, Paul Giamatti, Barnard Hughes, Barbara
Sukowa, John Carpenter and Gretchen Mol. Almost all of them overact in
their brief time in front of the camera. None of the characters are
compelling, and, if the movie had aired on television, I'm sure I would
have turned it off long before it was over.
Very much in the spirit of ILLUMINATA, which opened this past summer,
the fast-paced CRADLE WILL ROCK takes a comedic backstage look at the
production of a play. And like ILLUMINATA, although it has its moments,
it never comes together in anything approaching a satisfying whole. I
would be inclined to suggest that you just wait for the video and use
the fast forward to get to the good parts, but this would require you to
fast forward through almost the entire picture, making it not worth the
CRADLE WILL ROCK runs a long 2:15. It is rated R for language, nudity
and sex and would be acceptable for teenagers.
Copyright © 1999 Steve Rhodes