Tim Robbins should stop wasting breath insisting that his latest release is not - repeat, not a political film, but a comedy. It's like he suddenly hankers after the career of Barry Sonnenfeld or the Farrellys. But any flick calling itself "a (mostly) true story", set at the tail-end of the Depression and touching on union agitation, right-wing paranoia and the awkward collision between big business and working-class art gets the "political" tag in our book.
But so what? Because Robbins has crafted an ambitious, gripping and very funny movie that brings an obscure slice of American cultural history to life. Of course it's political - this is, after all, the unabashedly liberal writer-director of Bob Roberts and Dead Man Walking. But Robbins has rigorously avoided turning out a po-faced polemic, weaving real and fictitious elements into a delightful, kaleidoscopic tapestry.
It all chugs along at a frenetic pace, but Robbins has way too much to cram in. Ambition exceeds running time, and some of the subplots and performances inevitably suffer from lack of evolution. On the plus side: the oddball relationship between Joan Cusack's commie-hating bureaucrat and Bill Murray's vaudeville has-been; Federal Theatre head Hallie Flanagan's (Jones) doomed efforts to save The Cradle Will Rock; and Orson Welles (Macfadyen, on one swaggering note) and John Houseman (a camp, perpetually bemused Elwes) charging loudly through the Depression-era scenery like a pair of rhinos in a china shop. Less absorbing are Emily Watson's waif and the efforts of playwright Marc Blitzstein (Azaria) to finish his opus.
Depression-era New York has been vividly brought to life, with some top-notch costume and production design. Ultimately, it's all big, sprawling fun, with a rousing, feelgood finale. And yes, you'll come out knowing more than you did before you went in.
Painting with broad brushstrokes, Tim Robbins delivers a first-rate portrait of a thrilling period in America's history. It may not hang together satisfyingly, but some brilliant vignettes, hilarious moments and superb performances make up for it.