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Tim Robbins's "Cradle Will Rock"

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Topsy-Turvy could also serve as the title of writer-director Tim Robbins's Cradle Will Rock, which is spiritedly obsessed with the follies and pizzazz of the gypsy theatrical life and with moneyed society. (By a happy coincidence, it's practically a companion piece to Leigh's film.) Robbins is almost insanely ambitious in attempting a full-scale, tumultuous portrait of art, theater, and politics in thirties New York. The film's focal point is the politically motivated cancellation by the Works Progress Administration of Marc Blitzstein's leftist opera The Cradle Will Rock, a Federal Theater Project presentation produced by John Houseman and staged by Orson Welles, and the subsequent raucous, impromptu restaging of its premiere twenty blocks uptown.

As a director, Robbins doesn't really have the chops to bring most of it off, but he's made the right decision to frame this story as a comedy; at its best, the film suggests what Preston Sturges might have come up with if he suddenly turned Altmanesque. The cast is varied and wildly uneven: Angus Macfadyen's Orson Welles is mostly a blur of bellowing and bad manners, but Rubén Blades's Diego Rivera, who clashes with John Cusack's Nelson Rockefeller, is a roaring success, and Bill Murray, who plays a scarily despondent vaudeville ventriloquist, demonstrates yet again, after Rushmore, that he's a major actor who can disturb us as resoundingly as he once made us laugh.


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