Written and directed by Tim Robbins

In Cradle Will Rock, his third directorial outing, Tim Robbins takes on an almost insurmountably ambitious project: a re-creation of an era into which characters imaginary, obscure and famous are woven in a tapestry that represents the texture of the time. It's a tall order. E.L. Doctorow was able to pull off a similar undertaking in his novel Ragtime, but even an estimable talent like Milos Forman couldn't fully bring that to life on the screen.

In fact, Robbins has set himself an even tougher task. The era he deals with, the '30s, is fresher in memory after 60 years than the pre-World War I period of Ragtime was when Doctorow's book came out after a similar time lapse. One can suggest several reasons: Thanks to sound movies, we have a much fuller, more accessible record of the '30s, and the political issues that drove the turmoil at that time are still active, with acrimonious debates between the left and right as to what really happened in that era. It goes without saying that the likes of Pat Buchanan and William F. Buckley will accuse Cradle Will Rock of being a left-wing whitewash, chanting their standard refrain that everyone who flirted with radicalism in America for five minutes was fully responsible for every horror of Stalinism.

But more than anything, the extent to which the first two decades of the century seem much more foreign to us than the '30s -- and seemed that way even 40 years ago -- is a result of a slowing in the rate of change. That is, despite the notion of "future shock" -- the idea that change has been accelerating at a dizzying pace as we approach the millennium -- there are many realms in which nothing in the last 70 years has overturned our culture as totally as the Great War and the two decades that preceded it.

The central historical events on which Robbins has based his film are these: In 1937, 22-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles (played by Angus MacFadyen in the film) was staging the premiere of Marc Blitzstein's anticapital musical The Cradle Will Rock under the auspices of the WPA's Federal Theater Project. A day before the show's scheduled June 16 opening, government guards locked the company out of their theater to enforce a temporary hiatus on new projects because of funding cuts. (The cuts were a first salvo in conservative attempts to undercut the WPA.) Welles and his associate John Houseman (Cary Elwes) located another theater 20 blocks away and asked the audience to walk to the new location, where the show would be performed without sets or costumes (which were locked up at the first theater). After a frantic but successful attempt to find a piano, Blitzstein (Hank Azaria) began to perform the show himself to his own accompaniment; the cast members -- who had been forbidden by their union to appear onstage for the impromptu engagement -- began chiming in from the audience. (Robbins makes this look spontaneous, but it apparently was Welles' plan.) The night is reported to have been magical, and the show probably garnered greater publicity than it would have if the original production had gone on unhindered.

The event has obvious dramatic potential. In fact, in the year before his death, the real Welles was planning on directing Rocking the Cradle, a film based on the events. Formerly blacklisted screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. had come up with the script, which Welles had rewritten extensively. Sets were constructed, and some actors were cast. (The relatively unknown Rupert Everett was set to play Welles.) As so often occurred during Welles' career, the funding fell through at the last minute. Welles' version of the script was published in an expensive, hard-to-find edition after his death; early announcements of Robbins' film listed the Lardner-Welles script as its basis.

Robbins, however, has presumably strayed significantly from the original concept -- enough at least that the Writers Guild has awarded him a solo screenwriting credit. In his hands, the story becomes a centerpiece for a broader look at issues of freedom of speech; government funding of the arts; the traditionally uneasy alliance of artists, leftist intellectuals and labor unions; the links between big business and big government, between big business and fascism; and a dozen other topics that continue to have relevance today.

Though the staging of the musical is the focus, Robbins introduces several other plot threads, both real and invented. Nelson Rockefeller (John Cusack), fancying himself an art connoisseur, hires Diego Rivera (Ruben Blades) to paint a mural for the new Rockefeller Center. A WPA clerk (Joan Cusack), obsessed with communists in her workplace, testifies before the prototype for HUAC. She is romanced by a ventriloquist (Bill Murray) who is embittered over the death of vaudeville. A charming emissary (Susan Sarandon) from Mussolini presents art treasures to American industrialists in return for material aid to the fascist cause. One of her beneficiaries is a steel magnate (Philip Baker Hall) whose high-spirited wife (Vanessa Redgrave) is sympathetic to the theater company. Blitzstein wrestles with memories of his late wife and his attempts to introduce Brechtian concepts into American theater. A seemingly untalented singer/actress (Emily Watson) longs to break into show business; an Italian-American performer (John Turturro) struggles to stay onstage while supporting his wife and kids and dealing with his pro-fascist extended family.

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.

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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