Cradle Will Rock (1999) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Tim Robbins is a fairly complex writer/filmmaker. Unfortunately, he follows a simplistic brand of politics, and he sometimes makes his movies political statements. As a result, his characters divide into black or white, purely demonic or pure of heart, depending on which side of his politics they land. Another thing that often causes him problems is an ongoing ambivalence about whether to be serious or comic. Because of these two characteristics, this movie is filled with characters who are cartoons - hilarious fascists on the three stooges level of sophistication (Paul Giamatti as an Italian buffoon), corrupt and shallow plutocrats (John Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller), or the saintly and principled working class (John Turturro, Emily Watson)


Josie Whittlesey and Sandra Lindquist do full-frontal nudity.

There is an anonymous couple fornicating in the balcony of the theater. Her breasts are visible.

Bah, humbug, Robbins. God damn, you're 40-something, son. By your age most guys have realized that the world is not black and white, but an infinite subtle array of grays.

This is a true story and a great subject for a movie. Orson Welles and John Houseman once attempted to stage a left-leaning pro-union musical on the bankroll of the U.S. Government during the Great Depression, as part of the National Theatre Project. When the theater was closed and their props seized and impounded, they marched the entire opening night audience 20 blocks up the street to another theater. Since the actor's union forbade the actors to go on stage, the playwright was to perform the entire play by himself with a piano, but the actors, unsolicited, performed their lines from the audience. It was a stirring scene when they began to speak from their seats. Unfortunately the play (a real play - this is mostly a true story) was a real eggsucker, and the scene continued, which sent that emotional crescendo earth-bound in a hurry. Robbins' sympathy with the play's ideology must have blinded him to the fact that it really, really stunk. As a result, he lovingly presented long scenes from the play and its rehearsals, and they all seem interminable. Emily Watson's singing is excruciating torture. She sounds like that Mrs. Miller lady that used to be in the audience of all the talk shows years ago, and her diction and phrasing are so poor that I couldn't understand one single word she sang. (Watson was terrific when not singing, as she usually is!)

Like Ragtime, the story interweaves fictional principals with real personalities. For some reason, Robbins decided to publicly "out" John Houseman. I never knew Houseman was gay. Frankly, I never gave it any thought, or cared. Outing him didn't seem to serve any purpose other than meanness, but that at least was accurate. Some of the other historical portraits verge on lunacy. It's one thing to take liberties with people who lived before the 19th century, because nobody really knows what they looked and sounded like, but the personalities of Orson Welles, Nelson Rockefeller, Diego Rivera, and others are well known to many of us, and have been recorded on film, thus making it obvious that many of this film's characterizations were way off the mark in this film. Angus McFayden's portrayal of Welles must be the single least accurate historical representation I've ever seen in a major film. The young Welles was a tall, flamboyant man, with a distinctive basso voice, an IQ of about a thousand, and a massive ego to match it, a sesquipedalian man who could and did pontificate eruditely on every subject under the sun. Plus he was only about 21 or 22 when this incident happened. Angus McFayden played him as a perfect replica of Dudley Moore in Arthur.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen anamorphic

  • an 8 minute "making of" featurette

I've only concentrated on the negatives above, but I have to say that this basic story is so stirring that it's hard to screw it up completely, and the movie has a lot of strong moments. Turturro got a great role, for example, and he ran with it. There are some good laughs, and Robbins winds together about four storylines in a complex and clever fashion. This could have been a masterpiece, but it isn't, it's just an OK movie, and there's nobody to blame but Robbins, who wrote and directed.

The Critics Vote ...

  • General USA consensus: three stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4.

The People Vote ...

  • It was a mammoth flop at the box office, and must have been a major financial disaster. Produced for a cost of $32 million, it grossed less than $3 million, producing a sea of red ink.

Miscellaneous ...

  • A brilliant review by Salon Magazine, which is sympathetic to the film's politics, but can see through that to its artistic failings. Summing up the film perfectly, the author wrote, "Sequences that delight you with their invention and wit bump up against ones of such didactic condescension that it feels as if someone is shoving a pamphlet into your hand."

The meaning of the IMDb score: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence equivalent to about three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, comparable to approximately two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, equivalent to about a two star rating from the critics, or a C- from our system. Films rated below five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film - this score is roughly equivalent to one and a half stars from the critics or a D on our scale. (Possibly even less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. (C+ means it has no crossover appeal, but will be considered excellent by genre fans, while C- indicates that it we found it to be a poor movie although genre addicts find it watchable). D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well. Any film rated C- or better is recommended for fans of that type of film. Any film rated B- or better is recommended for just about anyone. We don't score films below C- that often, because we like movies and we think that most of them have at least a solid niche audience. Now that you know that, you should have serious reservations about any movie below C-.

Based on this description, this is a C. Enjoyable on several levels, it's a pretty good movie that should have been a great one.

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