Written and directed by Tim Robbins

Robbins takes on quite a raft of worthwhile ideas here, and one has to wish he had done it a little better. Though the film has its pleasures -- how could a movie with such a cast fail to? -- it reaches so far and wide that it feels chaotic. It suffers from the pitfalls that often hobble films with multiple protagonists: There is no one on whom the audience can hang its sympathies for very long.

Though not immediately obvious, it becomes clear after a while that Robbins wants the form of the film to embody those very Brechtian ideas that Blitzstein strove to incorporate in the original musical. But such techniques have rarely (if ever) worked as well onscreen as on the live stage, and from what we see of the Blitzstein show, it's hard to believe that they worked very well onstage, either, at least in that instance. Indeed, it's symbolic of the film's failings that the climactic presentation of the musical never recreates the frisson that presumably ran through the audience on that night 62 years ago. In fact, The Cradle Will Rock (the musical) comes across almost as a parody of left-wing art -- with ham-fisted symbols and embarrassingly earnest proclamations instead of human characters and memorable melodies. It's like the faux Clifford Odets play that opens Barton Fink.

Some of the casting and performance decisions are also less than perfect. Robbins himself would have made more sense as Rockefeller than his friend Cusack: He is much better at playing downright goofy, and the round-faced, not-very-bright innocence he can project is a better match for the manner of the Nelson Rockefeller who was grinning and glad-handing voters throughout the '60s. For that matter, his slightly puffy good looks might have made him a better candidate for Welles, too, though by all rights Vincent Philip D'Onofrio, who played Welles in Ed Wood (with voice dubbing by Maurice LaMarche), should have a lock on the character forever. MacFadyen doesn't look much like Welles, but that's not the only problem: He plays him at constant full-tilt flamboyant, as though Welles never relaxed his theatricality for a moment, even in private. It's not merely unbelievable, it's nearly unendurable. The usually perfect Elwes similarly turns Houseman into a caricature, so much so that he and MacFadyen seem to have wandered in from a Preston Sturges film.

Philip Baker Hall, Susan Sarandon and John Cusack in Cradle Will Rock, a film more exhausting than edifying
Philip Baker Hall, Susan Sarandon and John Cusack in Cradle Will Rock, a film more exhausting than edifying

The invocation of Sturges is surely deliberate, particularly given that another, more minor, character (played by Paul Giamatti) seems cloned from Sig Arno's Toto in Sturges' Palm Beach Story. This isn't so much the actors' fault as it is Robbins': It's as though he wants Cradle Will Rock to embody Sturges, Welles and Brecht -- another example of trying to pack in too much.

In the end, it's all just too damned much. It's more exhausting than edifying. Robbins seems to be aiming to bring back the '30s through sheer force and momentum, to actually bully us into the period. And it's a shame to boot. His heart's in the right place: The issues he brings up are still important; the conflicts of the era are still too much with us; and the activists of that time and place, no matter how dangerously naive they may seem in retrospect, have been too shallowly vilified and mocked for years. Their stories deserve to be told. If only Robbins had told them better.

Opens Jan. 21.

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