Cradle Will Rock

M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   D A V I D   N G

In Tim Robbins' expertly crafted but politically manipulative Cradle Will Rock, every scene is an impassioned ode to the grassroots wholesomeness of the American proletariat. Workers are saints, Robbins wants us to believe, whose aspirations are always being trampled by capitalist swine. The casting of Emily Watson, John Turturro, Bill Murray, Cherry Jones, and Hank Azaria as working-class theater professionals is shrewdly calculated: they all sport angelic, childlike faces that only a millionaire could hate. Cradle Will Rock is so unrestrained with its political sympathy that despite great technical and narrative achievements it comes off as just another piece of socialist propaganda.

Structured like a classic Robert Altman movie, Cradle Will Rock rotates among a huge cast of characters who come to life in bits and pieces. Their lives collide when a pro-union musical penned by a starving artist (Hank Azaria) gets picked up by Orson Welles' theater company. When a House committee starts investigating possible Communist sympathy in the Federal Theater division of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the musical becomes the focus of political, emotional, and romantic intrigue. Among the subplots are the battle over a Diego Riviera mural commissioned by Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), a romance between two whistle-blowers (Bill Murray and Joan Cusack), and the sale of artwork by a Fascist (Susan Sarandon) to wealthy New Yorkers (Phillip Baker Hall and Vanessa Redgrave).

Acting in so many Altman movies has taught Robbins how to move smoothly, almost imperceptably from character to character. The first 30 minutes of Cradle Will Rock is a virtuoso series of unbroken takes, each incorporating several characters who float aimlessly, come together, and drift apart. It's a testament to Robbins' talent as a director that he trusts the audience to keep track of all fourteen major characters whose development is deliberately disjointed. He never dumbs it down either, introducing each character in full detail, their lives already in progress before we meet them.

Cradle Will Rock works best when it finds and exposes flaws on both sides of the political divide. The best scene is a brief argument between Communist artist Diego Riviera (Ruben Blades) and a Fascist artdealer (Sarandon). At the peak of their fight, Riviera points out that she is Jewish and Fascist, to which she retorts that he is a wealthy Communist. They are both hypocrites of sorts. Robbins doesn't dwell on the scene; he makes his point and quickly moves on.

Equally strong is the romance between the Bill Murray and Joan Cusack characters. Brought together by their disgust of socialism, they instigate the House investigation into the WPA. But soon, they find themselves outcasts in the radical theater community. They are labelled traitors. Lonely and rejected, they can only find friendship with each other. Robbins treats both characters with sympathy even though in his political universe, they are clearly misguided. "It's not easy standing up for what you believe in," Cusack says, a remark which is true for Communists and non-Communists alike.

Robbins should have placed all of his characters in this moral middleground. His movie would have been more ambiguous, more complex and far less preachy. The majority of the characters are either saints or villains, unfortunately, and it's easy to predict what they will do. Robbins is especially cruel to the ultra-wealthy whom he has dressed as 18th century French aristocrats for a costume party. By demonizing the upper classes, Robbins allows his political leanings to infect his artistry. While it is tasteful to use politics as an inspiration for movies, Robbins is placing his cinematic resources in complete servitude to his politics.

The climactic theater scene is the movie's weakest partly because Robbins' political sermonizing reaches obscenely sanctimonious levels. He intercuts two scenes: one of the destruction of a liberal, pro-union piece of art, and the other the creation of one. Robbins keeps intercutting between scenes until his message dies of repitition. A more potent approach would have been to not intercut at all, and to allow the audience to make the obvious thematic connections.

Cradle Will Rock is an admirable movie, brilliantly conceived and acted. And Tim Robbins solidifies his place as one of the country's most innovative movie talents. But Cradle Will Rock is a political movie that suffers from too much of its own politics. At the center of the greatest political movies, from Reds to Wag the Dog, is human relationship, whether it be romance or friendship or professional bond. If Robbins had devoted more effort to creating interesting characters and less to promoting his beliefs, his message would have come across louder and stronger.


[rating: 3 of 4 stars]


WEB LINKS:
Movie Studio Web site: Touchstone (go.movies.com)
Movie Web site: Cradle Will Rock