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by: Michael Dequina

1999 appears to be the year where filmmakers pay tribute to the entertainment medium that paved the way for celluloid: theater. This summer saw the release of John Turturro's stage-set Illuminata, and opening this month are Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy and Tim Robbins' Cradle Will Rock. All films bear their own unique qualities (on a basic level, Illuminata is a complete fiction, while Topsy-Turvy and Cradle both have some grounding in historical fact), but Robbins' film stands apart in that in addition to providing a portrait of the New York stage circa the 1930s, it also aims to capture the political climate at the time. It's a grand ambition, but Robbins is able to pull it off, if only in the end.

While politics loom large over the film, Robbins, as one well knows, is an actor himself, and thus the theatre plays no small part in Cradle. The film is titled for The Cradle Will Rock, a politically-themed musical composed by one Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria). The production, directed by a tempestuous young Orson Welles (Angus Macfadyen), is the focal storyline of the film, but it's also not the only one. Elsewhere, wealthy Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) commissions Mexican artist Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) to paint a mural in the lobby of his new building. Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon), a representative for Mussolini, gives valuable paintings to millionaires, one of whom is one Grey Mathers (Philip Baker Hall), in return for their support of the Italian war effort. The American government conducts hearings that will determine the future of the Federal Theatre Project, which is valiantly defended by its head, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones); but helped taken down by a low-ranking employee (Joan Cusack), who in turn is pursued romantically by a ventriloquist (Bill Murray).

With so many characters and so much going on, Cradle Will Rock meanders with no clear agenda for most of its running time. As messy as it gets, the proceedings are kept watchable by the work of the stellar cast, which also includes Emily Watson, John Turturro, Vanessa Redgrave, and Cary Elwes. Everyone does a fine job with their roles--though Jones impresses the most. The actors also have an infectious ball working together; pairing two live wires like Cusack and Murray proves to be an especially inspired move on the part of Robbins. Even so, as the film bounces between characters and plot threads, interest flags at times.

But all the disparate elements and ideas in Robbins' screenplay gradually weave together and then cement into a rousing climax that powerfully makes its points about the importance of artistic freedom. In the end, Cradle Will Rock proves to be a very apt title; it sways haphazardly for a while, but it does eventually find its steady rhythm.

RATING: *** 1/2 (out of *****)


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