The Good: Acting, Casting, Tapestry of plots, Ambiguity of message
The Bad: Moments of pacing (density)
The Basics: Another film that ought to have been contending for greater things in 1999, Cradle Will Rock is a character-driven tapestry of 1930s U.S.
Cradle Will Rock is potentially one of the greatest robberies in film history. No, it does not steal from other people's works or such, but in the races to win awards and receive recognition and an audience, it most certainly was robbed. It's ironic, considering the film is often about people standing up and acknowledging truths and greatness, that so few people stand up to praise the movie.
The film has a large scope and as such it often loses people, especially those who wish to see a movie without having to concentrate on it. The plots and characters weave around and play off each other. Nelson Rockefeller has chosen to have Diego Rivera paint the mural in the lobby of Rockefeller Center, which becomes problematic as the leftist artist incorporates images such as Lenin and syphilis into the work. WPA worker Hazel Huffman has rallied several anti-Communist artists to aid her in testifying against the WPA. One such artist is vaudeville ventriloquist Tommy Crickshaw, whose character arc is quite gripping. Largely the film plays around with Aldo Silvano and Olive Stanton, who are playing in a WPA play called "Cradle Will Rock," which is on the importance of Unions in America. Set against the play is a whole plot of steel tycoon Gray Mathers who is supplying Mussolini with steel.
The film is truly a tapestry and without knowing - or being able to appreciate - that, the viewer is lost. It's a complex film, especially as it says one thing and does another. For example, the play Cradle Will Rock is attempting to show the benefits of a union while the events surrounding the play lead to the Actor's Guild refusing to let the play be performed. If anything, the film is making the most potent argument about Unions ever: that they have their time and place, but their application is not universally beneficial to those who are a part of it. It's a story set in the 1930s, illustrating a concept that took much longer to be realized.
The acting is wonderful. All of the players get into their parts and portray the people they represent. Hank Azaria is wonderful as the delusional Marc Blitzstein, who writes Cradle Will Rock in the film. Harris Yulin gives a great performance and the briefly-seen Congressman Dies. All of the usual suspects: John Cusak, Joan Cusak, Philip Baker Hall, Vanessa Redgrave, Ruben Blades, John Turturro, and Emily Watson give their high caliber performance meeting or exceeding our expectations for their work. The true acting genius comes in the unlikely package of Bill Murray. In the surprise of the film, Bill Murray plays Tommy Crickshaw with a wonderful mix of self-loathing, abandonment and neediness. His character has surprising depth and I never thought I'd be saying he's the man to watch in a film with such talented actors as this.
While the film is not perfect, Cradle Will Rock comes quite close. Outside some historical references that are obscure, the film has moments where its purpose is unclear and it slows the pace. There are much worse uses of your time than this film and if you have children, I highly recommend this as an intelligent, engaging film. There are too few these days.
I must say, I'm impressed by the caliber of work Tim Robbins puts forth writing and directing Cradle Will Rock. This film was vastly underrated in a year of great films, most of which were overlooked.
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© 2011, 2002 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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