Cradle Will Rock

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    Tim Robbins' last film as a writer-director, the death row drama Dead Man Walking, had a clear thematic focus (it was about the death penalty and America's feelings on the subject), and two strong lead characters whose emotional engines were powerful enough to tow skeptical viewers through the rhetoric. And although it was anti-death penalty by definition?any film about a nun helping a death row inmate cope with his impending execution can't be otherwise?it gave moral and emotional weight to opposing viewpoints, and parts of it were wonderfully cinematic.

    Cradle Will Rock aims for a go-for-broke cinematic style?plenty of convoluted Steadicam shots and tricky crosscutting?but when you look past the occasional "searing" dramatic moments and 20-20 hindsight jokeyness, the movie is mostly agitprop and rhetoric. Robbins' subjects include American capitalism, liberalism, socialism, communism and fascism; the prickly relationship between businessmen and creative types; the philosophical and political questions raised by government funding of art, particularly by the Works Progress Administration; conformity versus individuality, etc. But these subjects aren't so much unified, or even organized, as merely dropped into the drama, like the contents of a refrigerator emptied into potluck stew. When the script does sink its teeth into a particular issue, belief system or conflict, Cradle Will Rock rarely makes any points beyond the obvious ones?and the obvious points it does make are so steeped in condescending Hollywood leftism that they made me embarrassed to be a liberal Democrat.

    The story revolves around the production of The Cradle Will Rock, a rabble-rousing musical critique of capitalism written by musical theater ace Marc Blitzstein (Hank Azaria), a lonely, struggling man who recently endured the death of his wife. The production is to be mounted by the Federal Theater Project, one of many groups operating in New York City during the Depression thanks to arts funding provided by the government. The group's director is a blustery 22-year-old named Orson Welles (Angus MacFadyen), and the producer is his good buddy and voice of reason, John Houseman (Cary Elwes). Welles is inexplicably portrayed as a drunken lout whose growing fame is based on five parts bluster, one part genius; more on this outrage in a moment.

    Aficionados of theater history know how the production was eventually mounted, so I won't spoil it for newcomers by going into detail here; suffice to say that it's one of the more colorful footnotes in the history of Depression-era New York. The group struggles to mount the production?no small accomplishment considering the egos of Welles and his actors, plus other creative difficulties, including limited funds and the possibility that politics might rob them of their venue. There's a backstage melodrama with plenty of subplots?a young homeless woman named Olive Stanton (Emily Watson) has ambition and talent but no training; the musical's lead actor (Jamey Sheridan) falls for her; a gifted actor and family man (John Turturro) is frustrated to be stuck in a marginal role because he has so much to give as an actor, and he resents the fact that his Italian-American relatives aren't sufficiently critical of Italian fascism; and so forth.

    Numerous subplots orbit around the production of Cradle. The head of the WPA theater, Hallie Flanagan (Cherry Jones), fights to keep the government from cutting off theater funding. It's an uphill battle because foes of the WPA are convinced?not without reason?that U.S. government money is being used to support the articulation of anticapitalist, pro-socialist views. Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack) fancies himself an esthete and decides to fund a mural by Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) at Rockefeller Center; Rockefeller badly wants to be seen as hip and open-minded, so he isn't sure how to react when the Mexican Socialist painter packs the mural with images that critique the values of the same capitalist society that built Rockefeller's fortune. (Rockefeller's anxiety over Rivera's art is one of the few things in the movie that rings true. Rivera's blithe eagerness to play both ends against the middle?to get rich while critiquing capitalism?is another.)

    The conservative point of view is represented by a constellation of buffoons; this would be offensive to conservatives if the film's liberals weren't also portrayed as generally silly, trivial people. Gray Mathers (Philip Baker Hall, superb as usual), a millionaire, is frustrated that his wife, the Countess LaGrange (Vanessa Redgrave), is hopelessly enamored with artists and bohemian types. Italian art broker Margherita Sarfatti (Susan Sarandon, doing kind of a Chico Marx accent), a propagandist who ghostwrites pro-Mussolini articles for Hearst newspapers, tries to gain a toehold in America's burgeoning anticommunist movement. Hazel Huffman (Joan Cusack), an employee of the Federal Theater, is offended by the commie leanings of so many government-funded artists. A broken-down vaudeville ventriloquist named Tommy Crickshaw (Bill Murray, in another outstanding supporting turn) falls for Hazel, and supports her when she decides to testify before a government commission investigating communist influence on the WPA theater.

    There's enough material here for three films, but Robbins can't seem to focus anything?the drama, the political points, the observations on life in the theater in the 30s. It's not the historical liberties that grate (like the juxtaposition of Cradle's production with Rivera painting his mural, which occurred a few years apart); it's the film's inability to figure out why it exists and what we should take away from it. Viewers who hoped, not unreasonably, that Cradle Will Rock might tell them something about the reality of an actor's life in the Depression or the popular appeal of pro-worker agitprop theater will be disappointed. The backstage intrigue, the rehearsal scenes, the ego clashes, most of the characterizations?it's all lifted from cheerfully artificial movies from the 30s and 40s, then lightly glazed with Hollywood lefty attitude. Watson's role is like something concocted by closet sentimentalist Barton Fink at the low point of writer's block. At least three characters casually tell people they barely know that they are homosexual. This is both anachronistic and condescending; the film pats gay people on the head for being gay in the same way that it pats actors on the head for being actors. One of the film's only clear messages is, "If you're a creative person, good for you?and if you're gay, that's good, too." It's all very high school.

    You'd think it would behoove Robbins to make a case for why the arts should receive government funding, even if such art articulates unpopular or offensive viewpoints. But Cradle fails on that account as well. Stand back from the movie's simplistic affection for the gypsy lives of actors, and the gang that's putting on Blitzstein's play seems an awfully annoying, selfish, blinkered bunch. Except for Blitzstein, whose visionary tendencies come through strongly in Azaria's touching performance, and Turturro's Aldo Silvano, who has a painful and real fight with his family over their refusal to rebuke Mussolini, there don't seem to be many clear-headed, passionate people on the left?or people you wouldn't flee from at a party for fear they might annoy you to death. Given Robbins' political views, he can't possibly be suggesting that Huffman and Crickshaw are correct when they characterize WPA-funded esthetes as a bunch of spoiled, unprincipled jerks, but that's what comes through. I'm not saying every left-leaning character had to be a saint or a humorless mouthpiece. I'm saying there was probably a way to validate the lives and careers of people who receive federal arts funding without robbing Cradle of entertainment value?and Robbins didn't find it. It's hard to envision a film like this ever becoming a popular success, but if it had been sharper, smarter and less self-congratulating, it might have had a shot at finding an audience. The general ineptitude and wrongheadedness of Cradle amounts to a small tragedy for American liberals; if this film flops, as I suspect it will, it will be a very long time before any other filmmakers are allowed to revisit this subject matter, and they'll probably never be allowed to revisit it on such a grand scale.

    Incidental outrages abound. Why Robbins would paint Welles as an alcoholic, bullying fake is beyond comprehension. Every biography I've read indicates that, while flaky, flighty and a party hound, Welles was also a brilliant man, a great leader and a conscientious artist who was 100 percent committed to whatever project he happened to be involved in. But Cradle is too snotty to give one of the greatest creative geniuses of the 20th century his due. "I'm faithful to the ideals of the party," a besotted Welles protests to Houseman. "You're faithful to the idea of a party," Houseman shoots back.

    Later, Blitzstein chastises Welles for being too eager to compromise, asking, "Where do you draw the line? How long before you're doing soap commercials?" Is Robbins tearing down Welles to build himself up? Or is it simple ignorance, or meanness? At any rate, he's got a lot of nerve, especially considering his fondness for actor-packed compositions and grandiose long takes; the endless tracking shot that opens the film is so unabashedly Wellesian that, as my brother observed, Robbins might as well just mail a check to the Welles estate with a note that says, "Thank you for my career."

    Robbins' handling of Tommy Crickshaw encapsulates everything that's wrongheaded about Cradle. Murray's performance is rich, tender and sad; as in Rushmore, he seems so much like a real person?sandblasted mug, wary eyes?that he defeats the script's attempts to make him just another cog in the film's creaky propaganda machine. Murray also lends credence to the character's conservative beliefs?something Robbins can't be bothered to do. Tommy Crickshaw's resentment of the Federal Theater is credible; based on the self-centered, myopic, frequently childish behavior of the thespians who subsist on federal funding?not to mention their self-interested, pro-socialist leanings?Crickshaw seems utterly justified in loathing their triviality and despising the fact that they're working and he is not. He raises questions about their worthiness that linger in the mind.

    But the validity of Crickshaw's resentment threatens Robbins' self-satisfied liberal worldview. So rather than take the character's opinions seriously and debate them within the confines of the drama?as he expertly debated the pro-death penalty viewpoint within the dramatic confines of Dead Man Walking?he tries to explain them away. He tells us that Crickshaw is just an embittered sourpuss?an aging bachelor who's desperate for love, and a practitioner of an art form that's dying out because vaudeville is in decline. It seems not to occur to Robbins that Crickshaw, despite his painful work and love lives, could be a principled man with genuine objections to what's happening in his profession (and in America). The filmmaker has empathy for Crickshaw when he's pining after Huffman, but he treats Crickshaw's politics dismissively. It's a variant of that cliched liberal idea that conservatives are conservative because they don't want other people to have fun, or because they hate life and fear change, or because they have rotten sex lives and want to take out their frustration on the rest of us.

    Sweet and Lowdown directed by Woody Allen Woody Allen's 30th film is a trifle, but a pretty tasty trifle. Its mock-documentary style, coupled with its flashback, tall-tale structure, makes it kind of a combination of Broadway Danny Rose and Zelig. Sean Penn is Emmet Ray, a fictional jazz guitarist who's a legend in his own mind. He calls himself the second-best jazz guitarist in the world, right behind "this gypsy Frenchman, Django Reinhardt"; Emmet is so awed by Reinhardt's skill that on the two occasions when he heard him play in person, he fainted dead away. Like many a movie artist, Emmet is pure magic when he's plying his trade (his guitar playing is performed by Howard Alden and Bucky Pizzarelli), but once he leaves the stage, his life is a wreck, and he has only himself to blame. He's an alcoholic, a gambler, a sometime pimp, a profligate spender, a womanizer, a liar and an all-around lout. You should hate him, but thanks to Penn's inventive, aggressively lively performance, he grows on you; you can understand why women would fall in love with him despite the fact that he's a textbook definition of bad news. With his pimp mustache and shambling, slightly bowlegged gait, he seems both archetypal and real; Penn hasn't given a performance this rich since Dead Man Walking, and he hasn't been this funny since he did his Huntz-Hall-on-crack routine in Neil Jordan's unfairly maligned remake of We're No Angels. He doesn't beg for sympathy, and Allen doesn't ask on his behalf. At one point, he seems prepared to talk about his deprived childhood and incredibly abusive father, but he quickly stops himself, since guys like Emmet don't talk about stuff like that.

    Allen's work is always a lot edgier, more astute in navigating the highs and lows of relationships, when the story takes place in the present day. When he sets stories in the past, he can't help romanticizing the people and places; even horrible people are presented as charming and essentially harmless. But Sweet and Lowdown isn't toothless. Unlike Cradle Will Rock, Allen's film is set in a swingin', fabulous, slightly nostalgic version of the 1930s, but it draws on life as well as movies. The style is gritty romanticism; the script doesn't shirk from detailing the hopelessly disorganized and self-defeating lives of creative people. "No genius is worth too much heartache," says a nightclub owner played by Brad Garrett, summarizing the friction between artists and moneymen throughout history.

    Sweet and Lowdown isn't the minor masterpiece some have claimed. It errs, I think, in giving Emmet four women to love and mistreat (including Hattie, a lovely, moon-faced mute played by Samantha Morton, and Blanche, a well-bred, pretentious, irritating but stunningly voluptuous writer played by Uma Thurman), then charting Emmet's relationship with them in chronological order. In essence, this means the film has to start all over again each time a new lover is introduced. Some of the dialogue is too on-the-nose. ("I never met anybody who kept their feelings all locked up," one girl tells Emmet; "I let my feelings out in my music," he replies.) Crucial actions occur offscreen, or are merely recounted in present-day interviews with real-life celebrities, including Allen himself?a technique that should be retired for awhile, considering how many times Rob Reiner and Billy Crystal have misused it. More problematically, Emmet doesn't change as the film goes on?he has a horrible, gut-churning revelation at the very end, but that's not the same thing. The film seems like it ends just when it was really getting interesting.

    But it's fun while it lasts. The jokes work?Emmet taking dates to shoot rats in a junkyard; Emmet making an ill-considered stage entrance atop a huge crescent moon suspended from wires. And the cinematography, by Chinese director of photography Zhao Fei, is richer and more compositionally striking than the Allen norm. (Especially the way he frames distant figures against dense backdrops?busy piers, wooden rollercoasters.) And some of the dialogue is priceless. Warning his ruffian pals to respect Blanche, Emmet growls, "Take your hat off. She grew up with a butler." When Emmet reveals that he used to pimp, Blanche thinks for a moment, then replies, "The girls I came out with were whores, too, only we called them debutantes."