The intersection of politics, class relations and art has rarely been examined in the movies. Cradle Will Rock, the third directorial outing from Tim Robbins, examines this unusual juxtoposition with plenty of energy. But amid his many political musings, Robbins somehow forgot to make a good movie.
The primary storyline in Cradle Will Rock (and the source of the film’s title) is the production of a pro-union, anti-capitalist 1937 musical drama by Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), as one of the final productions of the WPO (the government sponsored theater program). Produced by such notables as Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen) and John Houseman (Cary Elwes), both of whom are portrayed as buffoons, the play within the movie features such struggling working-class actors such as Aldo Silvano (John Turturro) and Olive Stanton (Emily Watson), both of whom are, on the other hand, portrayed as martyrs.
Meanwhile, the director of the WPO, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), is coming under fire from Congress. The first wave of the Red Scare is gripping the nation, and anti-Communists are seeing enemies everywhere. A meek clerk in the WPO, Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), starts an anti-Red support group, and discovers a like mind in the fading ventriloquist, vaudevillian Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray).
Finally, in a completely unrelated storyline, Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) is looking for an artist to paint a mural in his new Rockefeller center. With a hearty endorsement from a visiting Italian fascist, Margherita Sarfatti (the heavily accented Susan Sarandon), he finally selects Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades), but finds himself unprepared for the radical political statements Diego plans to paint.
The overall theme of Cradle Will Rock is the passing of art from governmental hands into the private sector, and the detriment to creativity that shift has caused. It’s a theme worthy of examination, yet Cradle Will Rock seems more like the beginning of a diatribe than the beginning of a discussion. It’s hard to imagine that Tim Robbins could insert his political agenda into a film any more overtly than the entertaining Bob Roberts. But, remarkably he does it in Cradle Will Rock. The heavy political message oozes out of every frame of celluloid like thick tar which clogs up the proceedings, and weighs down the film.
You’d expect with a cast packed with as much talent as Cradle Will Rock that there’d be at least one decent performance. And you’d be right. Stage veteran Cherry Jones is spectacular as a chipper, strong woman unprepared for the ultimate voraciousness of the Congressional Red Hunt. However, that’s it. The remainder of the varied cast is either so bland as to be rendered neglible, or else overact wildly. Even the usually reliable Murray, Cusack(s) and Sarandon are unquestionably awful in this movie. Tim Robbins directs his cast like a minecar without a brake. Those on the flats go nowhere, and those on a slope careen well off the tracks.
That isn’t to say Cradle Will Rock doesn’t have its moments. There are brief flashes of wit throughout the picture, and the very final scene seems particularly inspired. But most of the film is about as entertaining as a very dry manifesto (which is essentially what it is).
With better planning (and a better script) Tim Robbins’ latest opus might have been bearable. As it stands, the film comes nowhere near his earlier successes of Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking. Still, the themes within Cradle Will Rock are intriguing, and deserve exploration in a better movie than this one.