Thursday, April 14, 2016

The Birdcage: A Movie Review

That's right, the 20-year-old movie with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. I'm reviewing it. Cable keeps showing a movie over and over, chances are I might eventually have something to say about that movie. Got a problem with that? No? Good!

Williams and Lane play a couple who own a theatre in South Beach, Miami that presents drag shows. Albert Goldman (Lane) stars in the shows, his spouse Armand Goldman (Williams) directs the shows and writes songs for them. Dan Futterman plays their son Val, who arrives from college and informs them that he is getting married, and that the parents, Senator and Mrs Keeley, (Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest) of his finace Barbara (Calista Flockhart) will be visiting soon, and that they are conservative, and Val wants Albert and Armand to pretend to be a conventional family. This will involve Val's biological mother Katherine (Christine Baranski) pretending to live with Armand, his biological father, and the very very obviously gay Albert pretending to be an uncle, or disappearing, for the duration of the visit, and supposedly hilarity will ensue.

The good news is that Williams and Lane are very good as the couple coping with this painful request. Most of the movie is them getting for the Keeley's visit, and they create characters that we care about: a middle-aged couple dealing with a painful situation. And when it's Albert and Armand being with each other -- and that's a large portion of the movie -- the dialogue is wonderful, and what Williams and Lane do with it is wonderful. They seem like a couple who are in love, and have been in love for decades. What could be more beautiful than that?

The bad news, very bad for the movie, is that the situation around which everything revolves, around which the hilarity is supposed to ensue, is not plausible. It's not believable, not even close to believable, that Albert and Armand's son Val would consider for a moment asking them to enter a closet. There are an out, out, fabulously out couple in a very, very out neighborhood, and Val clearly is intelligent and sensitive and loves them very much. The movie doesn't come up with anything remotely resembling a plausible reason why Val would ask Armand to be straight and married to Katharine, and Albert to pretend either not to exist or to be a straight uncle. It shows Albert and Armand reacting with plausible horror to the request, it shows the facade plausibly (but unfortunately not hilariously) breaking down before the soon-to-be-in-laws finish their first meal together, and after the truth comes out it shows Val plausibly being very proud of who his family really are. If only it had come up with something plausible to drive the whole plot to begin with.

Flockhart, Val's fiancee, has very little to do in the movie except to react in a very wide-eyed manner to this and that. Hackman and Wiest, the conservative in-laws, are poorly-drawn cartoons of the American right wing. What I mean is that they are not even poorly-drawn characters. As good as Hackman and Wiest are, their parts aren't written well enough to make them seem like real human beings. They're like characters in an embarrassingly bad high-school play which you had to see because a relative had a hand in it. They can't come close to making us care about Senator and Mrs Keeley one way or another, as sympathetic characters, or monsters, or anything else except simple-minded plot devices. Just like Val's unconvincing request for Albert and Armand to hide their whole lives.

How did Val expect the facade to last for however long he and Barbara were going to be married? Was Albert going to have to disappear and Katharine arrive to play Mom every time the Keeley's visited -- or telephoned? Or when the Goldmans made a Christmas card? Sorry, Elaine May -- F- on your screenplay. Or an A for parts of it and an Incomplete for the rest. Mike Nichols (he directed this half-good, half-disastrous movie), I can only assume that long-standing respect and love for the screenwriter blinded you to the actual state of the spine of the plot of this tale. And assuming that respect and love were to blame, I can forgive you.

Parts of this movie are very good indeed. It's not just that Williams and Lane are good in their roles. The entire presentation of their lives -- their South Beach neighborhood, their theatre, the rehearsals for their shows, their very, very gay housekeeper Agador (Hank Azaria, who also, of course, tries and fails to be convincingly heterosexual when the Senator and his Missus come for dinner), their big, beautiful, flamboyant, proudly gay house, which has to be put into heterosexual drag for the visit just like Armand and Albert and Agador -- all of that is really beautiful. It's the only reason to see the movie. And it's a shame that all of that couldn't have been used in a movie whose plot made sense.

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