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bird cage

The Birdcage

Starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane,
Gene Hackman, and Dianne Wiest
Directed by Mike Nichols

Once upon a time there was a French film called La Cage Aux Folles (Birds of a Feather) which was a big hit. It made its way to the Broadway stage and to the big screen as a musical, and once again has been adapted for the screen, as The Birdcage.

It's been done to death. So what? It's a farce -- the characters are bigger than the stereotypes they present. And when it doesn't work, you'll be sitting in the theater thinking, "I thought this was a comedy." When it does work you'll be chuckling, then laughing, then guffawing, then straining at the screen to hear the dialog ('cuz you can't hear, there's too much laughter).

Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) are a content gay couple, having their little spats and growing into upper middle age (50-something) together. They've raised Armand's son Val (Dan Futterman) together, and as the film begins they are greeted with the news that Val is about to marry into a prominent Washington family.

The father in law is a homophobic, totally right-wing U.S. senator named Keeley (Gene Hackman). The morality committee he runs has been rocked with scandal, for it seems his partner did not do as he said you should. Keeley's wife (Dianne Wiest) suggests that a nice "white wedding" is just the cure for the bad PR.

'Course Val hasn't told the senator about his "parents." In fact he has lied up the wazoo as to who they are, what they do and what their backgrounds are, to wit, the senator has no idea that Val is Jewish. And rather than fess up, he embarks on a plan to (essentially) humiliate the ones he loves.

I hate this kid. It's one thing to be a stupid, pea-brained, stick-in-the-mud, hoity-toity political hack. It's another thing when you turn your back on a good set of roots for the sake of appearances. Damned thing is that people do it every day, in many more ways than asking "mom" to stay away when the in-laws come to call.

The Birdcage, on the surface, is a broad slapstick farce with over-the-top stereotypes of gay characters inhabiting one central and a host of supporting roles. On a deeper level, it's about rejection of roots and all that kid/parent stuff we all go through, and sometimes never resolve.

OK, enough of that. Is it funny? Yes. Is it nasty, insulting funny? To the serious gay talk shows on cable here in Manhattan, yep. They've gone ballistic. Not to me, and certainly not to the paying audience I sat with. Maybe it's because us "straight" people prefer to look only at stereotypes. Realistically it's because if you live in New York City, you know gay people very much like Armand, and to some extent like Albert. I can't speak for people in Iowa, but the characterizations from both men go beyond stereotype.

Robin Williams, having done the drag bit in Mrs. Doubtfire, is the straight end (sic) of the loving couple. Williams lies back and lets Nathan Lane steal the show almost every chance he gets. The screenplay by Elaine May and direction by Mike Nichols gives him plenty of chances.

Except for the times it is making a not-so-heavy-handed point about family values not being restricted to strictly heterosexual couples. It is at these times Cranky found his liberal self thinking "I thought this was supposed to be a comedy?" But those times passed quickly enough.

Elaine May's script savages traditional right-wing political positions, includes a logical solution to the abortion "problem" and deflates the homophobia inherent in some parts of that political party with a hysterical (at least to me) one-liner about a particular religious minority. Mike Nichols has put together a most enjoyable film (and that the endgame hinges on a technologically impossible point -- you can't get anything past ex-Sound Guy Cranky -- will be ignored).

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price for The Birdcage, he would have paid . . .


Why isn't it higher? Simple. As much as I liked it, as much as I laughed heartily as the film climaxed, 24 hours later I couldn't remember more than one really funny bit. Maybe that would call for seeing the thing again, but I can wait for my next show.

Click to buy films by Mike Nichols
Click to buy films starring Robin Williams
Click to buy films starring Nathan Lane
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