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You’d think that two sequels and a Broadway musical would have stripped the last sequin from Edouard Molinaro’s 1978 family-values-in-drag screen farce, La Cage Aux Folles. Although director Mike Nichols’ American adaptation of Jean Poiret’s French play won’t win any prizes for originality, it’s high heels above the current crop of Hollywood’s dumb-and-dumber comedies and pokes a few well-aimed fingers in the eyes of Christian Coalition sanctimoniousness.
Elaine May’s screenplay closely adheres to the original’s plotline. Armand (Robin Williams), proprietor of the Birdcage, a raucous Florida drag club, and his longtime life partner Albert (Nathan Lane), the club’s stellar attraction, are faced with a dilemma when Val (Dan Futterman), Armand’s son from an early flirtation, proposes marriage to Barbara (Calista Flockhart), the daughter of an ultraconservative senator. As before, marabou boas trump basic black, and love conquers all. Nichols and May revitalize this musty vehicle by transposing it to the vibrant setting of Miami’s South Beach and infusing it with the lively social satire they evolved in their pre-Hollywood days as an improvisational comedy team.
The film’s striking opening shot—the camera sweeps across the water toward a strip of art deco buildings, neon-lit in jawbreaker colors, and finally into the Birdcage itself—sets the blithe, self-assured tone for what follows. The streets teem with perfectly tanned and toned young bodies. Inside the club, the glitzy iconography of drag, which has been extensively explored in recent movies, is shimmeringly rendered by production designer Bo Welch and costume designer Ann Roth. A treat for both eyes and ears—the musical score embraces Donna Summer and Gloria Estefan as well as Sondheim and Lerner and Loewe—The Birdcage has the summery sparkle of a tropical carnival.
But the film’s social subtext, its gleeful attack on priggishness and hypocrisy, is even more bracing. The ingénue’s strait-laced parents have been reimagined as bumptious Ohio right-wingers—Sen. Keeley (Gene Hackman), co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order, and his social-climbing wife, Louise (Dianne Wiest). Reeling from a potentially ruinous political scandal—the senator’s bluenose colleague has just been discovered dead in the embrace of an underage black hooker—the Keeleys, on the run from sensation-seeking media hounds, feel confident that a highly publicized white wedding will restore their tarnished reputations. What they don’t realize, until nearly the end of the film, is that their daughter’s fiancée’s father is a gay Jew and his “mother” a drag diva.
In the guise of appearing evenhanded, Nichols and May toss a few glass punches at liberals, notably the Kennedys. But their clear, sitting-duck targets are self-serving reactionaries and religious zealots (Bob Dole, Jeb Bush, Billy Graham, Rush Limbaugh, the Pope) and their obsessions—school prayer, abortion, homosexuality in the military. In the present political climate, with Republican presidential hopefuls dancing to Ralph Reed’s tune and Clinton (whose craven reneging on his gays-in-the-military pledge unleashed a new wave of homophobia) in hot pursuit, it’s refreshing to watch a mainstream Hollywood movie that isn’t afraid to endorse personal freedom.
Williams gives the most controlled performance of his career and, arguably, the most appealing. Gone is the feverish stream-of-consciousness spritzing; his antic free spirit is confined to a wicked twinkle in those blindingly blue eyes. The always reliable Hackman’s senator is a comedic triumph of small-minded anality, a boorish snob who richly earns his climactic metamorphosis into ghastly drag. Although Wiest’s slitted eyelids, which appear to be permanently glued, should disqualify her as a screen performer, the actress obviously relishes her Ellen Burstynish turn as the senator’s clueless spouse. As Agador, Armand and Albert’s campily inept houseman, Hank Azaria dominates every shot in which he appears; a muscular Latin Thelma Ritter with show-biz ambitions, he’s a delight. Cybill’s Christine Baranski has several tough-but-tender scenes as Katharine, the groom’s biological mother. Her song-and-dance duet with Williams as they reminisce about their two-night erotic stand while touring as musical comedy gypsies provides one of the movie’s least flamboyant yet most endearing interludes.
Only Lane’s Albert lets down the ensemble. If you’ve seen him onstage in Love! Valour! Compassion! or hosting last season’s Tony Awards, you’ve already witnessed this shrieking, mincing, one-note performance. Lane’s hysterical, terminally insecure tantrums and mopey pathos lack texture and depth. Surely there must be a more inventive way to portray nelly men than unrelenting queeniness. Like Dustin Hoffman’s Tootsie—a role May helped to create—Lane is only capable of expressing palpable emotion when, in the last third of the movie, he’s disguised as a woman and offers a tart, Swiftian riposte to the senator’s pro-life rantings.
The Birdcage’s first hour, during which the mechanics of farce wind into gear, plods a bit, notably in a reprehensibly manipulative scene that briefly dupes us into assuming that young Val is Armand’s secret lover. But after the Keeleys arrive in Florida and the mishap-laden dinner party thrown by their prospective in-laws commences, the laughs, including some sneaky May one-liners, come fast and furious. One would be mistaken to think that this movie has anything radical on its mind; in terms of sexual politics, it’s no more daring than the messily amiable To Wong Foo. (These days, with screen depictions of gay men restricted to asexual best friends, cross-dressers, and AIDS victims, a truly subversive film would depict the happy, monogamous relationship of a healthy, masculine suburban couple—say, a carpenter and a computer programmer.) But The Birdcage shrewdly uses the liberating lance of laughter to deflate narrow-mindedness and marks something of a return to form for Nichols after the Mammon-worshipping Working Girl and the new-age blitherings of Regarding Henry.
The Birdcage’s fervent political and moral concerns contrast boldly (and favorably) with the Gen-X solipsism of actor-writer-director Eric Schaeffer’s piddling romantic comedy, If Lucy Fell. “It’s just me being me,” observes Schaeffer, characterizing his performance as Joe, a lovelorn art teacher, in the movie’s press kit. An extension of the tiresome narcissism that informed his first feature, My Life’s in Turnaround, which chronicled his struggle to become a filmmaker, If Lucy Fell offers incontrovertible evidence that it’s time for Schaeffer to search beyond himself for subject matter.
Joe shares an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side with his college friend, Lucy (Sarah Jessica Parker), a psychotherapist facing her 30th birthday. Depressed that neither has snagged a mate, they renew an old vow to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge if they haven’t found love before turning 30. Granting themselves one final month before taking the plunge, they make desperate last-ditch attempts to form fulfilling romantic relationships. Joe works up the courage to speak to Jane (Elle Macpherson), the beautiful neighbor he has been covertly observing (and painting) for five years, and Lucy has a fling with Bwick (Ben Stiller), an inarticulate but successful artist. Neither effort proves fruitful, and the film ends on the Brooklyn Bridge where Joe and Lucy come to a realization that you have no doubt figured out during the course of reading this paragraph.
This summary demonstrates Schaeffer’s minimal talent for screenwriting, a deficiency underscored by his dialogue, which mixes whining psychobabble with dimwitted gags about spit, shit, and cock size. His directorial skills are equally unimpressive—flat compositions, unmatched shots, limp pacing—and his inexpressive performance mirrors his unprepossessing appearance: a bad haircut topping a pasty face with a grin that could serve as a ‘before’ photograph in a dental reconstruction circular. In just five years, Parker has devolved from the sweetly amoral ditz of L.A. Story to a self-absorbed, pointy-faced scold. Statuesque Macpherson and dreadlocked Stiller bring much-needed comic relief to the rare moments when Schaeffer pries the camera away from himself.
During the lugubrious 93 minutes required for Joe and Lucy to discover how to transform friendship into love, my eyelids sank so low I could have been mistaken for Dianne Wiest’s twin brother. You’d have more fun flinging yourself off a bridge than snoozing through this clunker. CP