Cradle Will Rock

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 muses¹ 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.

¹These are Blitzstein’s late wife Eva and Bertolt Brecht. Robbins doesn’t exactly bend over backwards to make this clear to an audience that hasn’t done the homework beforehand.

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