Robin Williams and Nathan Lane aspire to a remake of Édouard Molinaro’s classic 1978 French/Italian farce, La Cage Aux Folles (itself, based on the 1973 play by Jean Poiret) with Mike Nichols’ The Birdcage (1996); the story of a gay couple grappling with the pending marriage of one of their children to the daughter of an uppity conservative, who would frown upon their lifestyle – if only he knew about it. Contemporizing the screenplay by Molinaro, Francis Veber and Marcello Danon seems to have been a challenge for Elaine May, the writer of this Americanized derivative. The original movie excelled in a sort of laconic indolence, the comedy derived from world-weary stresses brought to bear on the couple’s valiant endeavors to ‘play it straight’ and fool the world. By contrast, May’s adaptation is a strained artifice of sight gags and one liners; relying almost entirely on the mania that is Robin Williams to sell the story. It doesn’t quite come off, partly because Williams seems to be frequently interrupting the central narrative with excerpts from one of his stand-up routines (funny, but disconnected from the rest of the plot); also as a result of co-stars, Nathan Lane and, to a lesser extent, Hank Azaria, who frequently come off twice as funny with half as much effort.
Interestingly, when Meshach Taylor elected to play the uber-flamboyant window dresser, Hollywood Montrose in Michael Gottlieb’s Mannequin (1987), the Gay Coalition of America was outraged, even picketing and denouncing his portrayal as a bastardization of the homosexual lifestyle. For some time since, it has become somewhat fashionable to argue only actors who are gay can play gays on the screen; frankly, a ridiculous notion and one utterly eschewed by Nichols in his casting of The Birdcage. Robin Williams dives headstrong into this juicy part, whole-heartedly tickling our funny bones with his usual rapid fire delivery. And yet, at almost every turn his comedic genius is usurped by Nathan Lane’s more understated acerbic wit. For example: there is a raucous moment when Williams explains the ‘eclectic celebration of the dance’ to one of his nightclub extras, Celsius (Luca Tommassini); manically flailing his limbs in various interpretative movements inspired by Twyla Tharp, Michael Kidd and Bob Fosse. When Celsius continues to chew his gum, suggesting it helps him think, Lane frostily declares, “Sweetie, you’re wasting your gum!”
The chief shortcoming of this remake is that it never goes beyond such stereotypes. All of the characters in The Birdcage are one-dimensional cardboard cutouts, pandering to the most abject homo and heterosexual clichés. Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) are a couple of gay extremes; Williams’ petulant impatience bordering on some more deeply frustrated masculinity, pitted against Lane’s habitually effete and devastatingly limp-wristed emotional wreck. On the flipside are Gene Hackman’s Teutonic Senator Kevin Keeley (so rigidly right of center, he all but obfuscates the ‘silent majority’ with his ‘never let them see you enjoy yourself’ approach to life) and his shy and retiring wallflower of a wife, Louise (Dianne Wiest at her most annoyingly elfin). Somewhere in the middle we get Armand’s son, Val (Dan Futterman), made from a casual dalliance with a chorus girl, and the Keeley’s neurotic daughter, Barbara (a wide-eyed Calista Flockhart). Neither has the nerve or the conscience of a common slug; both ready to live the lie by telling tall tales to their parents.
The Birdcage relocates its action to South Beach; a Floridian hotbed for thong-wearing muscle gods and big-breasted bubble-heads nightly frequenting the art deco, Carlyle Hotel, home to Armand Goldman (Williams) and his life partner, Albert’s (Lane) snazzy nightclub – The Birdcage and where Albert appears in drag as the highlighted attraction, Starina. It’s a comfortable life, periodically unsettled by Albert’s bouts of stage fright; also his sneaking – and fairly bitchy – suspicion that Armand is having an affair. Nothing could be further from the truth. For better or worse - Armand loves Albert and vice versa. This, however, is not immediately apparent, as director Nichols opens with the hint of a clandestine flagrante delicto; Armand sneaking off during one of Starina’s performances to meet a much younger man in their apartment over the club. As it turns out, the man is Val (Dan Futterman) – Armand’s illegitimate son, made from a one-time fling with chorus girl, Katherine Archer (Christine Baranski) who has since moved on to better things. Kate’s been estranged from Val practically since birth, affording Armand and Albert the responsibility of rearing him into manhood. For Albert, it’s truly been a labor of love. He regards Val as ‘his baby’.
But Val has an unwelcomed surprise in store for them both. He’s engaged to Barbara Keeley (Calista Flockhart), the daughter of ultra-conservative U.S. senator, Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman) and his traditionalist hausfrau, Louise (Dianne Wiest). Seeking reelection, Keeley has joined the bandwagon on ‘family values’ as the co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order. Alas, when his partner in this ‘morality thought police’, Sen. Eli Jackson (David Sage) is found dead of an apparent heart attack in the arms of an underage black prostitute, Keeley’s own reputation – and his entire political future are brought into question. The press descends upon the family home, hounding Keeley at every turn. It’s a quandary, until Louise points out there is no better way to bolster popular opinion and deflect from a public scandal than to stage a big ‘white’ wedding splashed across the society pages. “There’s the cover of Time and Newsweek!” she suggests. So, Keeley decides to pack up Barbara and Louise and sneak off to South Beach to meet Val’s parents. Alas, his chauffeur (Kirby Mitchell) has double-crossed the family, tipping off scandal sheet newshound, Harry Radman (Tom McGowan) and his National Enquirer photog (Grant Heslog); the pair tailing the Keeleys to Florida.
Val is very close to both men who raised him; something he is quite certain Sen. Keeley would never understand. Moreover, Val utterly fears the truth will destroy his chances for happiness with Barbara. She already knows his secret and is equally dedicated to keeping her parents in the dark by telling them Val’s father is a cultural attaché to Greece and Albert is his little woman. Armand and Val elect to transform the couple’s gaudy abode into a Mormon-esque temple of solemnity; with Armand playing the part of a foreign aristocrat. The trio of conspirators also engages their Guatemalan houseboy, Agador (Hank Azaria) to play the part of their elegant man servant; albeit, one who has never worn dress shoes before and thus proceeds to chronically trip over his own feet when squeezed into a pair of shiny black loafers.
Agador also subs in as the family cook, a task to which he is hardly suited; crafting a bizarre soup out of hard-boiled eggs, tomato consommé and uncooked shrimp that Armand attempts to pass off as seafood chowder. Prior to dinner, Val and Armand have been fairly meticulous in removing all noticeable traces of sculpture and art from the premises that might offend the senator’s conservative sensibilities. Alas, they've completely forgotten about the soup plates, depicting Grecian men in homoerotic poses. To conceal the obvious, Armand frantically rushes around the table, ladling Agador’s concoction into everyone’s plate. It’s a disaster, further brought into question when Louise identifies a whole egg floating in this orangey mire. “Yes!” Armand nervously declares, “Huevos…their only real currency. It is said that a woman is measured by her weight in hens and a man is judged by the size of his cock (which, has obvious double meaning).”
Albert’s feelings are bruised after Val suggests Katherine be coaxed into ‘playing’ the part of his mother. Briefly, Albert separates from Armand, returning to his side - and aid - after Katherine’s arrival is delayed in heavy traffic. The plan is to present Albert as Val’s butch uncle. Alas, when Albert is unable to ‘play it straight’, he adopts an even greater parody, dressing in drag and pretending to be Val’s mother. At first, the pantomime completely fools the senator and his wife. In fact, Kevin is impressed with Albert’s archconservative views that seem to coincide with his own, creating a temporary (and unexpectedly hilarious) jealousy between Albert and Louise. Asked to offer his opinion on ‘gays in the military’, Albert cleverly replies, “Yes, I thought they had no business there too until I realized Alexander the Great was a fag. Talk about gays in the military!”
Kevin is completely fooled by, and enamored with Albert. But his dander is increasingly raised by Armand and Val’s obvious anxiety to keep Albert’s faux reminiscences to a bare minimum, suggesting to Louise in private that Armand is likely a ‘cold-hearted’ foreigner who probably believes he married beneath his station to this homespun and sensible woman from Grover’s Mills. Armand can barely contain his disdain for Sen. Keeley. Not only does he have to pretend he’s straight, he also has to fake not being Jewish with a name change from Goldman to Coleman, presumably because the senator is also an anti-Semite as well as a homophobe. Having knocked back more than a few stiff drinks since his arrival as Val’s mother, Albert’s façade begins to slip – as does his wig – Barbara and Val rushing him into the bathroom to reset it. Alas, Katherine arrives to upset the proverbial applecart, introducing herself as Val’s mother, much to the senator and Louise’s confusion, and, Armand’s chagrin. Val steps up to the plate, removing Albert’s wig in their presence and explaining the situation to Kevin, who is made speechless and utterly shell-shocked by this revelation.
There are bigger fish to fry when Kevin, attempting to leave the apartment in a huff, is inundated with flashbulbs and questions by Radman and other members of the press. Retreating back inside is only a temporary fix. For Radman is prepared to camp out as long as it takes to get the dirt on what’s been going on behind these closed doors. Worse, he’s managed to bring down an entire entourage of reporters also smelling ‘blood in the water’ and circling the nightclub for a headline. Armand and Albert elect to transform the senator, his wife and Barbara into drag queens. Amidst this glittery transgender splendor, surrounded by the nightly gathering of legitimate cross-dressing queens, everyone blends in. The Keeleys sneak past the press unnoticed. When Kevin sees his chauffeur nearby, still unsuspecting he is responsible for their present predicament, Kevin tells him, “Meet me on the corner in five minutes!” to which the chauffeur – unaware it is his employer he is talking to, replies, “Lady…not a chance!” The movie ends with a dissolve to Val and Barbara’s wedding ceremony, attended by an eclectic roster of guests, including Albert and Armand’s dearest ‘gay’ friends and various members from the senator’s political entourage.
The Birdcage is a fairly amusing comedy in spots; slickly packaged and sold on the ether of Robin Williams’ fertile and furious way with a gag. He’s ably assisted by Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria who damn near steal the show at varying intervals right out from under his nose. Dan Futterman is marginally engaging as the young buck about to lose his mind and the girl he desperately loves, at least enough to almost sacrifice his parents in a grand gesture of insincerity. Frankly, Gene Hackman’s talents are wasted herein. Hackman seems decidedly bored to utterly comatose as he sleepwalks his way through this performance. Dianne Wiest is strangely unsympathetic and generally inconsistent. She starts out as the naïvely contented happy homemaker, segues into a fixatedly insecure middle-age frump mid-way through, weeping “Somebody has to like me best!”, before moving ahead of her husband with fairly savvy powers of deduction and a ‘queer’ acceptance for the farce having been perpetrated upon them. It’s too much for the character to handle and Wiest doesn’t handle it well at all.
Emmanuel Lubezki’s garish and glossy cinematography captures all of South Beach’s lurid richness, its vibrant swaying palms, crystal clear waters, warm sands, and, eye-popping spectacle of extremely toned, ¾ naked bodies, sashaying to and fro, fills the screen with equal opportunity sexism and eye candy run amuck. Everything looks as it should. And yet, in the end, something is missing from this exercise. Perhaps, heart. We never truly understand these characters in all their fundamentally flawed motivations; hence, there’s no real connection between the audience and them to outlast the laughter and make the story poignantly memorable. I can think of a lot worse ways to spend a rainy afternoon than with this popcorn flick. Alas, I can also think of more than a few better!
No complaints…well, mostly… with MGM/Fox’s Blu-ray. Director Mike Nichols’ collaboration with Emmanuel Lubezki reveals a rich palette of fully saturated colors accurately reproduced in 1080p. The source material is, of course, in excellent shape. Contrast is bang on and colors pop as they should. Alas, this presentation falters in its rendering of fine detail, infrequently soft to downright fuzzy. Lubezki’s cinematography often veers toward creating cozy pools of light, but something just seems remiss here. I found myself occasionally straining to make out finer details. I also detected not even a hint of organic film grain, which leads me to believe undue abuse of DNR is the culprit. Yuck, and disappointing. Originally released with a 5.1 Dolby Digital track, we get a lossless DTS 5.1 herein with solid ambiance. The music sounds incredibly nuanced with just the right amount of reverb to make you feel like you’re in a swinging hot spot down south. Better still, dialogue is always crystal clear. Great stuff. Alas, there are NO extras! Bottom line: recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)