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The politics of art

Paul Clinton

“Cradle Will Rock,” directed by Tim Robbins, and starring Hank Azaria,

John Cusack, Bill Murray, Susan Sarandon and Emily Watson. Rated R.

Kernel Code: 2

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In “Cradle Will Rock,” Tim Robbins drenches his poseur-leftist

arguments about politics and art in grotesque theatrical spectacle and

overly lush nostalgia.

Not only does Robbins revive a rather arcane cultural moment for his

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story - 1930s New York radicals staging a musical celebrating the working

man - he socks it to us with the enthusiasm of a college freshman who

just discovered the “truth” in Marxism.

Based on “a (mostly) true story,” Robbins’ movie follows a theater

group as they stage Marc Blitzstein’s (Hank Azaria) lefty musical on the

federal dime.

It’s a glimpse into President Franklin Roosevelt’s brief experiment to

divert substantial subsidies to the arts in the Federal Theater Project.

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The experiment was sabotaged, as the movie shows, by anti-communist

informants (Bill Murray and Joan Cusack) who testify before a senate

subcommittee.

Robbins loads his movie with art celebrities from the time - a

22-year-old Orson Welles (an obnoxious Angus Macfadyen) who directs

Blitzstein’s play, critic John Houseman (Cary Elwes) and Diego Rivera

(Rueben Blades).

In one of the movie’s better subplots, Nelson Rockefeller (John

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Cusack) hires Rivera to paint a lobby mural for his new center. When

Rivera includes the image of Lenin, his sponsor throws him off the

project.

Robbins, the writer/director, deserves credit for raising issues - the

politics of art is the big one - but his movie is self-important and

inflated. His script is a polemic. His brave struggling theater artists

aren’t people; they’re meant to show us how rotten it is we don’t have

more federal funding for the arts.

The strengths of the movie - its convincing peek behind the stage door

- are probably unintentional, considering the bombast of other scenes.

Robbins, in a nod to “My Man Godfrey” (1936) and Preston Sturges, also

throws some anarchic, screwball comedy into this unsatisfying mix.

The acting is steady and theatrical. Emily Watson plays an angelic (is

there any other kind?) waif. Cherry Jones is the theater’s hard-driving

program director. Vanessa Redgrave, Susan Sarandon, Philip Baker Hall and

John Turturro also make appearances.


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