The birdcage has one of the better opening shots in recent movies. To the accompaniment of "We Are Family," the camera comes hurtling in over the ocean at night toward a glittering Florida skyline, flies over the beach, straight up to the front door of the title nightclub, and then right inside, across the dance floor and up onto the stage, where a chorus line of drag performers is dancing and lip-synching to the number.
It's a technically remarkable shot, and an energetic way to start--what a shame that the farce which follows is so puzzlingly cold, flat and dispirited.
The club's owner (Robin Williams) is a middle-aged gay ex-dancer, who now directs the show at the birdcage, a favorite of gawking South Beach tourists. His significant other (Nathan Lane), a great-lady drag queen, is the headliner, and the two of them live in bickering bliss in a lush apartment above the club, with a wacky Guatemalan house boy (Hank Azaria) who, ala Lucy Ricardo, wants to get into the show. The wrinkle which sets the plot in motion is that Williams has a son, from an errant heterosexual fling some 20 years earlier.
The kid (charmlessly played by Dan Futterman), whom Williams raised, shows up with the news that he's engaged to the daughter (Calista Flockhart) of an ultraconservative senator (Gene Hackman). To impress his future in-laws, the son talks Williams into acting straight just once and discreetly hiding Lane when the girlfriend's parents come visiting. Though understandably offended by the request, Williams and Lane agree to the scheme--they even recruit the long-absent biological mom (Christine Baranski) to pose as Williams' wife for the night. The perspective in-laws are told that Williams is a married cultural attache to Greece.
Everything goes wrong, of course, and when the senator and his wife (Dianne Wiest) arrive at the apartment, it falls to Lane to dress up in a sort of Barbara Bush drag and pose as the little woman. It turns out--who'd've guessed?--that Hackman is charmed by this pillar of wholesome, old-fashioned wifeliness and, before long, his own wife starts getting jealous.
By now you may have recognized that Elaine May's script is an adaptation of LaCage aux Folles, the hugely successful French-Italian farce of 1978, which spawned two sequels and a Broadway musical. Both May and director Mike Nichols, to their credit, have resisted getting mushy on us--there's no didactic message overtly stated. May left out the patronizing; unfortunately, she also left out the jokes.
Nichols didn't do much better. Apart from that deceptively terrific opener, the direction is enervated and sluggish. The closest we get to visual wit is in the set decoration which the couple's gay friends provide for the apartment to make it look like their idea of a straight man's home--they put Playboy magazines in the bathroom and hang a moose's head on the wall; then, when these props are kiboshed, they settle for hanging a big crucifix on the wall, and arrange two rows of ornate chairs to face each other. By the time Hackman and Wiest arrive, the living room looks like the antechamber of a Roman Catholic archbishop.
Much of the acting is quite good. Hackman, always underrated as a comedian, does the funniest turn as the thick-skulled father. His impatient perplexity at the world's failure to conform to his expectations is rather touching. Williams is commanding in the Ugo Tognazzi role, but his style seems wrong for farce--he plays it dead seriously, almost somberly, and while he is sympathetic, he isn't funny, and he eventually becomes a drag on the pace.
Williams is probably trying to avoid camp; Lane is not. A rip-snorting riot in Jeffrey as a gay priest, he plays the nelly way too hard in The birdcage, coming off artificial and strained.
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The birdcage isn't without its merits. The star power of Williams and Hackman is potent, and Azaria and Baranski liven things up in their smaller roles. But skilled as the cast is, it's difficult to shake the sense that they had guns pointed at their heads--except for Lane, who sometimes makes us feel like he's got a gun pointed at our heads, laugh or else.
The root of The birdcage's lack of spirit may be the inability to ignore ugliness at its basic situational level. A college-age son asking his loving parents to participate in a deception is perfectly reasonable farce mechanics. But when that deception involves denying their sexual identity, that qualifies him as a villain deserving of comeuppance.
Directed by Mike Nichols; with Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azaria, Dan Futterman, Christine Baranski and Calista Flockhart.