Exit stage left: Philip Baker Hall, Susan Sarandon and John Cusack get ready to rock the cradle.
Exit stage left: Philip Baker Hall, Susan Sarandon and John Cusack get ready to rock the cradle.

Red Alert

In Cradle Will Rock, his third directorial outing, Tim Robbins takes on an almost insurmountably ambitious project: the re-creation of an era into which characters imaginary, obscure and famous are woven into a tapestry representing 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 sixty 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 a number of 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 twentieth century seem much more foreign to us than the '30s -- and seemed that way even forty 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 seventy years has overturned our culture as totally as the Great War and the two decades that preceded it.


Cradle Will Rock

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 anti-capital 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 the theater to enforce a temporary hiatus on new projects, necessitated by funding cuts. (The cuts were a first salvo in conservative attempts to undercut the WPA.) Welles and an associate, John Houseman (Cary Elwes), located another theater twenty blocks away and asked the audience to walk to the new location, where the show would be performed without sets or costumes (those 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 on stage for the impromptu engagement -- began chiming in from the audience. (Robbins makes this look spontaneous, but it apparently was Welles's plan.) The night is reported to have been magical, and the show probably garnered greater publicity than it would have had the original production 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.) But as so often occurred during Welles's career, funding fell through at the last minute. Welles's version of the script was published in an expensive, hard-to-find edition after his death; early announcements of Robbins's film listed the Lardner-Welles script as its basis.

Robbins, however, has strayed from the original concept -- enough, at least, for the Writers Guild to award him a solo screenwriting credit. In his hands, the story becomes a centerpiece for a broader look at issues such as 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 and big business and fascism; and a dozen other topics that continue to have relevance today.

While 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 the House Un-American Activities Committee. 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 on stage 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. While 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.

While not immediately obvious, after a while it becomes clear that Robbins wants 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 on screen as they have on the live stage; from what we see of the Blitzstein show, it's hard to believe that they worked very well on stage, either. Indeed, it's symbolic of the film's failings that the climactic presentation of the musical never re-creates the frisson that presumably ran through the audience on that night 62 years ago.

In the end, 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 that's a shame, because his heart's in the right place. The issues he brings up are still important, the conflicts of the era are still 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.It's easy to see how Play It to the Bone, writer-director Ron Shelton's latest comedy-drama, got started. Shelton obviously wanted to do for boxing what he'd already done for baseball in Bull Durham, golf in Tin Cup and pick-up basketball in White Men Can't Jump. But somewhere along the way, the light, quirky amiability that infused that earlier trio of films got swept aside in a surfeit of ill-advised moves and off-kilter ambitions. The result is a road movie trapped in a cul-de-sac.

Instead of simply scoping out a milieu, dropping a few characters and situations into it and having fun, Play It to the Bone aims to combine Oliver Stone-styled "deep think" with Quentin Tarantino kookiness. The result is an extravaganza replete with graphic ringside action, "zipless" sexual commingling and even a religious hallucination or two. Shelton is far too good a filmmaker to let a viewer's eyes or mind stray for long. But stray they do, toward thoughts of less overheated filmmaking.

The basic story is pretty simple: When a drug overdose and sudden suicide eliminate the contestants of a prizefight planned as an hors d'oeuvre for one of Mike Tyson's lightning-swift, multimillion-dollar "matches" in Las Vegas, a pair of middleweight has-beens are tapped to fill in. All they have to do is put on a good show. But Cesar Dominguez (a becalmed Antonio Banderas) and Vince Boudreau (a hyperactive Woody Harrelson) aren't just boxers down on their luck -- they're the best of friends. As a result, the pair quickly find themselves embroiled in something other than a momentary reprieve from what novelist Budd Shulberg so aptly described as "a one-way ticket to Palookaville." Loudmouth Vince wants to take charge of the situation -- the better to score revenge on the fight's sleazeball promoter (Tim Sizemore, who else?). Cesar, meanwhile, hopes a win will give him a chance at the boxing bigtime once again.

Happily, Shelton doesn't have Rocky V in mind. But what he does come up with isn't all that far from another Bull Durham. For Cesar and Vince have the same girlfriend, Grace (Shelton inamorata Lolita Davidovich). But rather than choose between a volatile good guy and a lovable lunkhead, as Susan Sarandon did in that memorable comedy, Davidovich has two lunkheads on her hands. And she isn't inclined to make a choice.

While Grace's affair with Vince has supposedly been over for some time, it's clear she still has a warm place in her heart for him. The first thing she announces to the hapless Cesar when he tells her of the upcoming fight is that they're through. Well, not completely through, since she offers to drive him and Vince to Vegas for the fight. The stage would seem to be set for a pugilistic Design for Living, with our heroes vying to win both the fight and Grace's unstable semi-affections. But Shelton pushes this aspect of the plot aside, instead using the ride as a hook on which to hang a series of flashbacks and verbal digressions in which the characters examine themselves, to no particularly illuminating end. The screen trip, unfortunately, seems twice as long as the real one would have taken.

Grace is a typical Shelton heroine -- so smart you wonder why she'd give a pair of losers like this the time of day. Vince is not only a punch-drunk flake who has visions of a dashboard-style Jesus floating round his addled brain, he's also on the verge of a full-blown schizophrenic collapse. Cesar, meanwhile, brings up -- completely out of left field -- memories of how his defeat a few years back at the hands of a gay boxer caused him to question his Spanish machismo to the point where he briefly experimented with gay sex. No sooner has Shelton reached for this sociocultural hot potato than he drops it -- declining to explore Cesar's experimentation in any way. What he offers up instead is a side trip -- to an already overweeningly symbolic journey -- via a hitchhiker played by Ally McBeal playmate Lucy Liu. A snarling, craven slut who might have wandered in from a Neil LaBute nightmare, this character seems to exist for no other reason than to give Vince -- shocked by Cesar's confession -- a vehicle to comically reassert his manhood.

All of this, of course, is just vamping for the big-fight finale. And here Shelton contents himself with distancing the film not only from Sylvester Stallone but from more classic moviemaking as well. Rather than the cool black and white of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull, the boxing action of Play It to the Bone is in full, bloody color. Zeroing in on the details of physical damage with gusto, the film quickly pushes aside the characters' personal and professional concerns. Rather than illuminate anything about Vince or Cesar, the match turns them into mere pieces of meat.

Doubtless there are fight fans who might take a fancy to this. The bout is conceived and executed as a boxing wet dream: evenly matched opponents knocking each other down and picking themselves up time after time as the crowd roars. But anyone who has been paying attention to the plot and characters up to this point won't be so sanguine. For when the smoke clears, it's a wonder not only that either of the heroes has survived, but that the viewer -- by now rendered as dazed and confused as the contestants -- can remember who they are.

Maybe Shelton should be advised to try polo next time out.


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