Watchable drama based on a true story about the inmates of a mental institution in the late 1960s. The main reason it’s good rather than great is that although it has a couple of powerful moments, it isn’t as emotionally engaging as it should be, given the subject matter and themes. Still, it features some strong acting from its mostly female cast, led by Winona Ryder (giving one of her better, less irritating performances) and with solid work from Whoopi Goldberg, Angelina Jolie and Brittany Murphy. Jolie won an Oscar for her flashy but undeniably skilled performance. It’s fun to see Elisabeth Moss so young (she was only 16 at the time of filming); she’s not actually very good, and if I’d watched this back when it came out I would never have predicted what an outstanding actress she’d later become (principally on Mad Men). A minor criticism: I could have done with a bit more period flavour rather than just occasional reminders that we’re in the ’60s. The opening line of the film is Ryder asking “Have you ever confused a dream with life? Or stolen something when you have the cash?”, which is pretty hilarious in light of her arrest for shoplifting two years after the film’s release.
I’d read some very flattering things about this so my expectations were high. Now that I’ve watched it I’m not entirely sure why it’s so well-regarded. It’s enjoyable enough but nothing special. The anti-war and anti-gun messages are none-too-subtle, though that didn’t bother me (I’m a fan of FernGully after all, so a lack of subtlety in hammering home political messages in cartoons can’t be a major concern for me). The relationship between Hogarth and the robot is quite nice; in fact, on reflection, it’s really the saving grace that stops the movie from slipping down from OK to bad. Perhaps I’ve been conditioned by Disney and Pixar and DreamWorks, but I did find the movie needed a bit more humour – there’s some, but not nearly enough. A disappointment.
I was pleasantly surprised by this. The mockumentary format suits the story perfectly and gets maximum comedic value from a strong cast of (mostly) women: Kirsten Dunst (over-the-top in the best way), Kirsty Alley (a bit one-note but still funny), Allison Janney (hilarious and entirely charming), Denise Richards (exceeding my extremely low expectations of her), Brittany Murphy (who I’ve never found particularly engaging) and Amy Adams (great in her debut role). Adam West is also funny in a cameo at the start.
Tim Robbins gets points for ambition, but loses more for overreaching and making a turd. It’s a good cast and most of them do well, with the notable exception of Robbins’ then-partner Susan Sarandon, who is hopelessly miscast (and does a dodgy Italian accent) as Margherita Sarfatti. The main problems are a failure to pick one interesting plot thread and stick with it (instead jumping around to various less interesting subplots), and an earnestness that makes this work to get through (yes, Tim, we get it – you feel strongly about this subject (that art shouldn’t be repressed by the state)… but just say it once and get over it, stop hammering your audience over the head with it!). It’s a shame as I really love the two other movies he wrote and directed, Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking. There are some good bits: the scene in which the actual 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock is performed; the scenes in which Hallie Flanagan (a standout performance from Cherry Jones) appears before the Dies Committee (though apparently the dialogue was all lifted directly from the official transcripts, so it’s hard to give too much credit); and the brief appearances by Tenacious D’s Jack Black and Kyle Gass. As a massive Pearl Jam fan I have to point out that the second song in the end credits is Croon Spoon, a song from the actual 1937 musical The Cradle Will Rock, performed as a duet by Eddie Vedder and – wait for it – Susan Sarandon.
Well-made but ultimately unsuccessful. The main problems are the pace, which ranges from deliberate to interminable, and the story, which doesn’t really work as a thriller, an erotic adventure, or a marital fable. There’s effective use of a simple piano melody to build suspense, though it never pays off. Tom Cruise is reliable as ever; Nicole Kidman is adequate but doesn’t excel. Overall, while it managed to hold my interest, once it was over it was hard to ascertain what the point of it all had been; consequently I began to wonder if my interest had only been held because of who directed it, how well he does so, and who it stars. Thus far my least favourite Kubrick film.