Photo by Demmie ToddIT TAKES NERVE TO POKE FUN AT Bertolt Brecht and Orson Welles, but if you're Tim Robbins it apparently doesn't take much effort. Robbins has written and directed a splashy new movie called Cradle Will Rock, trumpeted as a “mostly true” account of the furor that greeted Welles' 1937 production of Marc Blitzstein's radical musical (what the composer called a “labor opera”) of the same name. Funded by the Federal Theater, a branch of the Works Project Administration, the musical was shut down by the government on the day it was to premiere because of its fiercely pro-union, anti-big-business sentiments. Locked out of the theater, with no costumes, props or sets, Welles and his producer, John Houseman, shifted the production to another New York house, where Blitzstein played piano onstage and half the cast sang their roles from the audience. The night was a triumph, with poet Archibald MacLeish calling it “the most exciting evening of theater this New York generation has seen.”

According to one Welles biography, Blitzstein wanted something austere, while the director wanted “to stage it as a flashy Broadway show.” It was a brilliant political gambit from the man who a year earlier had staged a voodoo Macbeth, an all-black production set in Haiti, and just five months after Cradle opened would turn Julius Caesar into an allegory about fascism. Welles had recently turned 22 when he began working on Cradle; years later, when he was 69, he wrote a screenplay about the original production, with an idea of directing the movie. As with so many of his dreams, this one went unrealized because of a lack of financing. The whole thing reached an ignoble apotheosis when Welles took Steven Spielberg and his then-wife Amy Irving to Ma Maison and suggested that the younger director might want to help fund the film. Spielberg, who had once paid $55,000 for one of the Rosebud sleds, didn't bite. He didn't even pick up the check.

Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum has called Welles' production of Cradle Will Rock “an existential point in his career that may have been even more decisive than any of his subsequent adventures in Hollywood, Latin America or Europe.” It ended Welles' prolific tenure with the Federal Theater, led directly to the formation of his famed Mercury Theater and, writes Rosenbaum, served as an emblem of Welles and Houseman's concept of a people's theater. The production also revealed, Rosenbaum suggests, the essential contradiction that was to define Welles' career, specifically the lacuna between his creative and commercial endeavors. One cannot understand the essential truth of Welles if one doesn't know that during his years at the Federal Theater he illegally funneled money from his radio gigs, including his pay from The Shadow, into his stage productions, a fearless balancing act that would continue for the next six decades.

ROBBINS HAS MADE A DRASTICALLY different film from the one Welles envisioned — it's wacky where Welles is absurd, cynical where Welles is canny. Its Depression-era streets are self-consciously artificial, which might be interesting if the film weren't simultaneously aggressively upbeat and politically didactic. There's nothing bad about the way it looks; every so often the camera swoops around in imitation of Welles' ingenious eye. The cast is professional, and large. Bill Murray plays a hostile ventriloquist with an admirable lack of self-indulgence. John Cusack is a breezy Nelson Rockefeller giving grief to Ruben Blades' hammy Diego Rivera. Susan Sarandon plays a Jewish Mussolini toady, a role that's meant to say something about hypocrisy. Emily Watson wrings our tears mercilessly. Vanessa Redgrave flaps her arms, while the reliable Philip Baker Hall alternately glowers and glows in her direction. Every so often, Brecht (Steven Skybell) materializes to taunt and occasionally sustain Blitzstein (Hank Azaria). Robbins seems to think he's deploying a comic Brechtian moment, but it's too silly.

Robbins' Brecht is a cartoon; his Welles a fool. Throughout the film, the young director (Angus Macfadyen) is portrayed as a pompous, hapless, drunk spectator to his own production. Although Welles' big ideas were abandoned when the theater was shuttered, Cradle Will Rock didn't direct itself, as it seems here; Welles may have been living large, but he also flew to Washington to plead the musical's case. Robbins has Macfadyen play Welles as if he were Falstaff, when in fact he was still Prince Hal, and seems curiously intent on rewriting history and denying credit whenever possible. It was Houseman who suggested that the actors sing their parts from their seats (here the producer, played by Cary Elwes, is simply a twittering fop), and Welles who petitioned the play's audience: “If you have the urge to act, just get up and do so.” The Welles bashing reaches a crescendo in a scene set in the restaurant “21,” when Blitzstein asks the director how far he's willing to compromise his art. “How long before you're doing soap commercials?” he asks, in a clear reference to Welles' Paul Masson days — a flabbergasting dig from Robbins, who can count among his own credits Howard the Duck.

After the renegade premiere of Cradle Will Rock, Welles told the audience, “This performance was not a political protest but an artistic one.” Of course, as he probably well knew, it was both. Welles once said that a director is someone who “presides over accidents,” a wonderful phrase that is true to the element of chance in the creative act but does not do justice to the fact that a great director, such as Welles, will do more than merely preside — he will marshal, cajole, orchestrate, tame and sometimes even encourage accidents. It's worth noting that in the closing credits for Robbins' movie, there's an “In Memoriam” for director Sam Fuller and two others, but — outside of the attribution for Macfadyen's caricature — nowhere does the name Orson Welles appear. Somehow that doesn't seem much like an accident.

CRADLE WILL ROCK | Written and directed by TIM ROBBINS | Produced by JON KILIK, LYDIA DEAN PILCHER and ROBBINS | Released by Touchstone Pictures | At selected theaters

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