Pick your hero from the pack

Review: Anybody who was anybody in the '30's seems to have a handle on this 'Cradle' as im Robbins gives voice to the revolutionary idea that art matters

January 21, 2000|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Fueled by equal parts political passion, hero worship and let's-put-on-a-show verve, "Cradle Will Rock" happily bites off more than it can chew in the belief that half-measures are for the lily-livered.

Writer-director Tim Robbins pays loving homage to the boisterous esprit of theater life in "Cradle Will Rock," a rapturous portrait of the Federal Theater Project in 1936. The result is a big-hearted rendering of several of the most fascinating chapters of American cultural history, all compressed into one urgently spirited moment.

"Cradle Will Rock," which Robbins has directed from his own script, weaves together a number of colorful narrative strands. There's Hallie Flanagan (the radiant Cherry Jones), who headed the Federal Theater Project under the auspices of Franklin D. Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration and who traveled the country evangelizing for community theater. There's Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) the Mexican painter who was commissioned by industrialist Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) to create the lobby mural for the Rockefeller Center. There's Rep. Martin Dies (Harris Yulin), whose House Un-American Activities Committee (ring a bell?) investigated the Federal Theater for harboring Communists.

And there's Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), a composer whose pro-union musical "Cradle Will Rock" was sacrificed to budget cuts and wound up sounding the death knell for the Federal Theater.

Robbins weaves a beguiling cloth of truth and myth in "Cradle Will Rock," which opens with a disclaimer that it is "a (mostly) true story" and proceeds to have a great deal of fun with the possibility of all of these characters overlapping.

Here we have the wealthy Countess La Grange (Vanessa Redgrave) falling in with the Federal Theatre crowd via a producer named John Houseman (Cary Elwes) and an actor named Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen), even as she lunches with Rockefeller, William Randolph Hearst (John Carpenter) and Marion Davies (Gretchen Mol).

Meanwhile the countess' industrialist husband Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall) falls a little bit in love with Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), a confederate of Benito Mussolini who persuades Mathers to help out the Italian leader with some steel.

Sarfatti, as it happens, is an old friend of Rivera's, and agrees to be a go-between when Rockefeller asks that the artist "cheer up" his mural, which audaciously depicts syphilis cells hovering above the heads of its privileged subjects, and lionizes Lenin.

Rockefeller would take a pneumatic drill to the mural, a sequence that proves to be one of the most stirring scenes in "Cradle Will Rock" (Robbins makes sure that one syphilis cell is left).

The actual play would enjoy only one guerrilla performance, which is also thrillingly staged by a company that includes a winsome yet steely Emily Watson and a ferocious John Turturro.

But the movie's best moments belong to Bill Murray, as the fictional character Tommy Crickshaw. A ventriloquist who is put out by the Federal Theater's politics and insistence that he train two ingrates in the fine art of vaudeville, Crickshaw is recruited by a disgruntled Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack) to denounce Flanagan and her Theater.

With his earnestly bobbing Adams-apple and powdered face, Murray lends an air of pathos and vulnerability to Crickshaw, who has a habit of speaking through his puppet. It's perhaps the funniest and saddest case of transference captured on screen, one that also happens to result in a bizarre -- and oddly moving -- rendition of "The Internationale."

But "Cradle Will Rock" is less about individual characters than Robbins' nostalgia for a time when trade unionism was still unambiguously heroic, when Communists were fighting Franco and not kow-towing to Stalin, and when art mattered.

Sure, he overstates his case when he dresses up Rockefeller and his friends as the court of Louis XIV.

But such flights of fancy shouldn't obscure the central idea of "Cradle Will Rock," which is that art should be a high-stakes endeavor, that it is enduringly powerful precisely because it endures long after the demagogues have been relegated to footnotes.

That reminder is captured especially eloquently in the film's closing sequence, an exuberant crane shot that brings tears to the eyes. ("Cradle Will Rock" opens with similarly inspired and complicated camera movements, exquisitely executed by Jean Yves Escoffier).

"Lord, it's the revolution!" Hall's steel magnate cries when he spies a roving band of actors and musicians marching toward a theater. Wouldn't it be pretty to think so?

`Cradle Will Rock'

Starring Hank Azaria, Ruben Blades, Joan Cusack, John Cusack, Cherry Jones, Bill Murray, Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, John Turturro, Emily Watson

Directed by Tim Robbins

Rated R (some language and sexuality)

Running time 133 minutes

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Sun score ***1/2

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