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Starring Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Cary Elwes, Philip Baker Hall, Cherry Jones, Angus MacFadyen, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, Emily Watson
Written and Directed by Tim Robbins
Rated [R], 134 minutes
website: www.cradlewillrock.com

In medieval times, tapestries were a visual aid to story telling. Massive woven cloths hung from castle walls, elaborately illustrated sections of story that, when viewed as a whole, became a piece of art many times more interesting than the story. So, it would be fair to call Tim Robbin's Cradle Will Rock a film tapestry. Lots of sectional stories all taken together to make a greater, and more impressive whole.

Then again . . . you could look at a tapestry and realistically see a big piece of rug hanging on the wall. Nice to look at but, all in all, insulation for cold, damp castle walls. And it is still fair to call Tim Robbin's Cradle Will Rock a film tapestry. For the second time, Mr. Robbins leaves Cranky befuddled. The film student locked away inside greatly admires the care and construction of Cradle Will Rock. Well written with a great cast and top notch performances, this is a very well crafted film. Several separate and distinct stories all end up in the same place, attempting to instill in you a pride that the people who drive our democracy can take control when the democratic systems we put in power go haywire.

Problem is, very little in Cradle Will Rock made me care (pro or con) about what was going on.

Virtually all of this story is true. We start with composer Mark Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), contemporary and friend of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copeland. Distraught over the death of his wife, lack of money, and the literal riots and police actions in the street against unemployed workers and union organizers, the man literally stops sleeping. In the throes of hallucinations generated by exhaustion -- and some of this time is spent in jail, after one such riot -- composes his masterpiece, the musical play of the film's title.

The play impresses Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones) and other bureaucrats at the WPA's Federal Theater who decide to stage the show. This brings together many other stories: Actor Aldo Silvano (John Turturro) anti-fascist immigrant Italian, married to a non-Italian girl (Barbara Sukowa), who takes wife and kids and walks away from his blood family when his brother turns into a Fascist supporter; Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) who works as a WPA stagehand and is pushed by a lover, the union rep John Adair (Jamey Sheridan), to break the WPA rules and audition for the company. This actress wannabe almost what she wants; and the creative types who hang with the monied upper-class . . .

These would be Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen) the director, whose legendary verbal battles with creative partner, John Houseman (Cary Elwes) and everyone else are amply acted. The rich folk they hang out with include William Randolph Hearst (John Carpenter) and his mistress Marion Davies (Gretchen Mol); steel magnate Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall) and his pretentious wife Countess La Grange (Vanessa Redgrave); Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), who spends his oil inheritance on real estate construction and the purchase of paintings by DaVinci from Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon). Sarfatti is a one time lover of Benito Mussolini who funnels all the profits from her art sales back to Il Duce and ghost writes pro Mussolini stories for Hearst. Rockefeller himself has problems with a politically themed mural being created for the walls of his "Rockefeller Center" by Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades).

And totally underneath the horizon are the grunts who bring the cradle down. Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), a WPA clerk riled by what she sees as pro-Communist sentiments being expressed in all the Federal Theater plays, including a kidlet musical called "Revolt of the Beavers"; alcoholic ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray), friend of Huffman. A one-time vaudeville star who sees his living being destroyed by radio and his troupe being overrun by no-talent Commie sympathizers, he helps Huffman rehearse her imaginary testimony before the nascent Un-American Activities Congressional committee.

But that testimony happens, as does Flanagan's defense of the Federal Theater. Everything you hear in these scenes is word for word from the Congressional Record. The WPA shuts the Federal Theater; the "Cradle Will Rock" is prevented from opening, not only by the soldiers in front of the theater, but by the union cast and musicians who won't cross the line. Welles and the Countess will not stand for that, which brings about the popular revolt that gets the play staged for its one time only performance.

And that's the kind of mega-story-flick we tend to see every December. Cradle Will Rock doesn't collapse under the sheer weight of characters and stories, but none of the individual stories comprising the whole affected dear old Cranky -- and, no, I was not suffering melted brain exhaustion when Cradle was screened. Almost all of the stories failed to move, or involve, or inspire, or twist my gut into a political rage (as Dead Man Walking did). I did learn that one of the principal characters was gay, which was more than I wanted to know, but the entire experience was like looking at a rug on the wall. With one brilliant, shining exception . . .

Oscar® to Bill Murray.

Perhaps Murray shines because his character is fictional, and doesn't have to consider what the "real" people did in history. "Tommy Crickshaw" runs a full range of emotions, sees all his lifelines slipping away and retreats into a schizophrenic relationship with his mannequin. How that plays out, and the developing relationship with Joan Cusack's Huffman was the one story that truly, brilliantly worked. Studio folk pushed hard for Murray to be nominated for Rushmore. This performance is far beyond anything we saw from Bill this time last year.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Cradle Will Rock, he would have paid...

$4.00

We used to kick these flicks up to a "standard" ($7.75) Oscar® nomination level. Too many folks don't give a damn what the numbers mean, and Cradle Will Rock just doesn't live up to the flicks that score a highly recommended $7, so we're dumping that artificial inflation.

Click to buy films by Tim Robbins
Click to buy films starring Hank Azaria
Click to buy films starring Susan Sarandon
Click to buy films starring Emily Watson
Click to buy films starring John Cusack
Click to buy films starring Joan Cusack

The Cranky Critic website is Copyright © 1995  -  2016   by Chuck Schwartz. Articles by Paul Fischer are Copyright © 1999 - 2006 Paul Fischer. All images, unless otherwise noted, are property of,©, ®, their respective studios and are used by permission. All Rights Reserved. Not to be used or copied for any commercial purpose. Academy Award(s) and Oscar®(s) are registered trademarks and service marks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.