Friday, November 28, 2008

Cradle Will Rock

Cradle Will Rock; Drama, USA, 1999; D: Tim Robbins, S: Hank Azaria, Emily Watson, John Cusack, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, Ruben Blades, Bill Murray, Joan Cusack, Cary Elwes, Philip Baker Hall, Jack Black, Paul Giamatti, Vanessa Redgrave

New York, '36. The government is financing the Federal Theater Project (FTP) that would employ a mass of actors in small plays. The young Marc Blitzstein presents a leftist musical, "The Cradle Will Rock", in which he criticizes the rich who exploit the poor, and makes a big impression on Orson Welles and producer Houseman. The poor Olive gets the main role of the prostitute. But the House Committee on Un-American Activities bans the play because it considers it "too Communist", yet the actors still take all they courage and perform on premiere...Ventriloquist Tommy is teaching to young interns some tricks while trying to seduce secretary Hazel. In the end, he throws away his puppet...Mussolini's mistress Margherita sells Italian paintings to finance the Fascists...The rich Rockefeller hires the painter Diego Riviera to make a mural for him. But he doesn't like the picture of Lenin, so he destroys it all and throws Riviera out.

The 3rd directorial work by actor Tim Robbins ("Bob Roberts"), in which he didn't star in, is the drama "Cradle Will Rock" that's filled with big ambitions, but still mildly disappoints. The 5 minute opening shot that follows the actress Olive (Watson) who listens to the newsreel on the big screen, exits the theater and goes on the street is fabulously directed, so simple and yet so effective, yet the rest of the story is quite the opposite: rather overstuffed and too complicated. The plot about the leftist play "The Cradle Will Rock" that was banned in '36 is so detailed and complete that it could work for a whole film, and thus it's not quite clear why Robbins added a bunch of other, unconnected parallel stories revolving around Mussollini's mistress Margharita, a ventriloquist and the argument between Rockefeller and Riviera. Each of those 4 stories would have been enough for a whole film, but all together they make the film seem forced and crammed with too much stuff, failing to concentrate on what it really wanted to say. It's a quality, demanding political film about the opinion on socialism in 1930's US, but since it simply has too many characters (over 20 of them!), nobody of them has more than 4 minutes of screen time: there are simply too many strong themes to get adequately explored. Still, Bill Murray is wonderful as the ventriloquist Tommy who simply leaves his puppet on the stage and leaves while the audience is still waiting, Emily Watson is again great in her small role, while Orson Welles was for some reason portrayed like some maniac who is jokingly pretending to be struggling actors and shouting on a couple for kissing and not working. The movie was nominated for the Golden Palm in Cannes.


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