Cradle Will Rock

Tim Robbins is a man passionate about his work, both in front of the camera and behind. He has a way of engaging the audience in his cause, rallying them behind him no matter what the subject.

Usually, that is. Unfortunately, his large-scale re-creation of a little-known event in theater history has some sterling performances and tells an interesting story, but ultimately is too confusing and emotionally ineffective. Robbins’s passion is still there; there’s just too much going on for us to march in line behind him.

It’s 1936, and the Works Progress Administration is keeping theaters in business during the Great Depression. There’s a great deal of wariness over communist content in the plays, though, particularly a pro-union piece called “The Cradle Will Rock,” written by a down-and-out playwright (Hank Azaria). Before it can be performed, the theater is shut down by the military, forcing its cast and crew to go elsewhere in search of a place to do their show.

There are too many characters and subplots in the film, leading one to think it’s building up to something great … but then it never gets there. The performance of “The Cradle Will Rock” seems to be a major event for the characters, but the audience remains unattached.

Great performances are delivered by Vanessa Redgrave as a wealthy theater supporter; Bill Murray as an alcoholic former vaudevillian; John Cusack as Nelson Rockefeller; several others, also, too numerous to mention. The film has humor but mostly maintains a tone of urgency, a call to fight against injustice. Big-time theater buffs may find the historical aspect interesting, as it examines issues of censorship and responsibility in art. But most people will find it too long, too ambitious and too unfulfilling in the end.

B- (; R, fairly heavy profanity, occasional brief.)