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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 13.79%
Average: 29.31%
Pretty Bad: 12.07%
Total Crap: 10.34%

6 reviews, 22 user ratings

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Cradle Will Rock, The
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by Rob Gonsalves

"Nice try, anyway."
3 stars

Tim Robbins' 'Cradle Will Rock' casts its net out for a lot of fish; it's not surprising that only a few of them make it into the boat, then flip right back out again.

The movie roves around in the arty New York scene of 1937, when poverty and politics rubbed elbows with painting and performance. The rich are getting richer at the painful expense of the poor; capitalism is starting not to seem like such a humane idea, so a lot of frustrated people are turning to the rhetoric of socialism or communism (which have their own pitfalls). Robbins tries to cover all this and Orson Welles, too. Cradle Will Rock is an amiable jumble, a sort of Schoolhouse Rock primer on the tenor of the '30s and an homage to free expression.

The sprawl here is about an hour shorter than another recent ambitious misfire, Magnolia, and is therefore more forgivable. Besides, it's about something (its trouble is that it's about too much, a dilemma I almost wish more movies shared). Robbins has become an easy and elegant director: he loosens his collar and takes us right into the action, trying a few things that don't come off (a pair of strange muses haunting playwright Marc Blitzstein, for instance), but never putting too much stress on them. His camera is active and alert without calling attention to itself, giving us a sense of teeming simultaneity: Things are happening here, all around, and the characters are sprinting to keep up with history.

So is Robbins' script, unfortunately. Generally, each character steps forward and defines himself, either politically or artistically, sometimes both at once. Some of this rattling on is engaging, depending on who's delivering it (I enjoyed the rapport between Ruben Blades' Diego Rivera and John Cusack's Nelson Rockefeller), but other characters, such as the waifish homeless singer Olive (Emily Watson) and, oddly, the blustering Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen), never really say anything. (The Welles of this film is like a frat boy who somehow got entrusted with a theater company.) Robbins also tosses in some padding, such as the anti-communist Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) and the on-the-fence ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), who seems to go along with Hazel's views because he's been snubbed by the allegedly communist Federal Theatre.

Robbins builds the political tensions until they come to a head with the suppression of Marc Blitzstein's pro-union play The Cradle Will Rock, which Welles' company wants to perform. Forbidden from acting it out on stage, the troupe in real life performed the play, songs and all, from their seats among the audience. Realizing that a climax involving a dozen talented people sitting down isn't very cinematic, Robbins cashes in his artistic license and lets the actors roam all around the theater -- at a certain point, you figure they might as well be on the stage. What should strike us as a great moment of ingenuity and a defiant gesture -- and has been chronicled as such in various Welles biographies -- comes off instead as a stunt, and the play itself doesn't seem as if it was ever that impressive.

Perhaps that's not the point. The performance is intercut with images of hammers smashing the giant mural Diego Rivera painted for Nelson Rockefeller, and the film may be saying that art will endure even if the corporate philistines and political bulldogs temporarily smash it down. Well, yes, art endures if well-meaning directors like Tim Robbins make a movie about it. There's a whiff of liberal self-congratulation about Cradle Will Rock. The movie's radical stance is that artists should get to do their art without being destroyed by mean rich people, and aren't we just wonderful for agreeing with that?

Tim Robbins has the technique and facility with actors to make a great movie, but he needs to stop trying so hard to enlighten us. After all, Orson Welles wasn't out to improve anyone's political consciousness with 'Citizen Kane' -- he was just having a great time, and Robbins could stand to do a little hell-raising himself. Entertainment comes first; enlightenment takes care of itself.

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originally posted: 01/26/07 15:49:26
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User Comments

2/23/11 Paco Red bastards are great! 1 stars
8/16/10 Fgplex "Strange muses"? That was Brecht! Do you use Internets? 5 stars
7/08/10 brian Written & directed by Tim Robbins, who desperately needed someone to pare down his vision. 3 stars
10/24/03 laurabetty a bit confusing at times, but enjoyable 3 stars
3/24/03 Jack Sommersby A collage of too many subplots and not enough cohesion to any of them. 1 stars
2/12/03 Gerardo Raschcovsky A movie to be seen now, days before a new war 5 stars
5/27/02 PeterGibbons Who is this Vidmar fuck? Go get in line for StarWhores III, you blob. Talk about krunk! 4 stars
5/03/01 BrainPan Very enjoyable. And any movie with Tenacious D is instantly credible. 4 stars
7/25/00 Monday Morning Overblown, incoherent, amazingly annoying. Waste of time and money. 1 stars
1/29/00 Ami the Wonderbread AHHHH. For anyone who loves theatre and the 30's, this rocks. 5 stars
1/24/00 Cibeus It wasn't entertaining, and it wasn't clear enough to be educational. Nice cast, well shot. 3 stars
1/21/00 H'woog bigshot Horrible beyond belief. Please Robbins, go away forever 1 stars
1/15/00 Kevin Cho FANTASTIC Cast! But Tim Burton has to work on flaws and approaching controversy. 3 stars
1/13/00 casey absolutely terrific 5 stars
1/06/00 Allen Konigsberg Best Sign Armageddon should have come at Y2K: Robbins still gets gigs. 1 stars
1/01/00 Raymondo Intricate fascinating tapestry, but Robbins and cast made it look easy. 5 stars
1/01/00 jenn "Blu Smrf" amazing film! art for the big screen, one of the best movies of the year! 5 stars
12/31/99 Malbert Some good parts...Redgrave&Azaria&Turturro were great! what happened to cary elwes??? 3 stars
12/19/99 Thomas Pompous and painfully self-congratulatory. 1 stars
12/19/99 Mr Showbiz Consistently tops itself with marvellous ensemble acting and surprising character reveals. 5 stars
12/11/99 Jon Burdick Big effort...has flaws, but so did Hamlet. 5 stars
12/10/99 JM Incoherent screwup of a fascinating story 2 stars
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  25-Dec-1999 (R)



Directed by
  Tim Robbins

Written by
  Tim Robbins

  Bill Murray
  John Turturro
  Vanessa Redgrave
  Susan Sarandon
  Emily Watson

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