Comedy director Andrew Bergman, who broke in working on scripts for Mel Brooks, is gifted but uneven. In 1990, he wrote and directed The Freshman, a piece of glittering nuttiness built around a beautiful, career-consummating performance by Marlon Brando. The film could only have been the work of an audacious crazy man--it featured Bert Parks singing "Maggie's Farm," for heaven's sake. Then came the 1992 Honeymoon in Vegas, an attempt at a romantic comedy and a big slide for Bergman; it was imaginative, but poorly worked out and at times unpleasant. Bergman's new film, It Could Happen to You, is an upswing. It's not nearly as inspired as The Freshman, and it crashes in its final quarter, but until then, it's a sweet breeze of a movie with the romantic feel that was missing from Honeymoon in Vegas. Bergman's comedy, at its best, rises out of placing his heroes in shockingly awkward positions. In The Freshman, the title character (Matthew Broderick) had a filial fondness for his boss (Brando) even though Broderick believed Brando to be an organized-crime figure involved in a particularly vile racket. Broderick's ethical disgust had to contend with the charming Brando's relentless cordiality. In Honeymoon in Vegas, Nicolas Cage had to tell his new wife (Sarah Jessica Parker) that he had lost her to gangster James Caan in a Vegas card game. The hero of the new film, a New York City cop named Charlie (Cage again) comes up short one day on a tip for a diner waitress named Yvonne (Bridget Fonda). She doesn't care, but it's a big deal to Charlie, who's presented as the city's last nice guy. He promises the down-on-her-luck Yvonne half the winnings from the lottery ticket in his wallet in lieu of the tip. Sure enough, it hits that evening for $4 million, and thus comes the Bergman awkwardness--Charlie's left in the position of telling Muriel (Rosie Perez), his acquisitive wife, that he's promised half of the winnings to a stranger, and a beautiful stranger, at that.
The film, the original and far superior title which was Cop Tips Waitress $2M, is a comedy about common decency. Charlie doesn't make his gesture to Yvonne through clenched teeth; his only worry about it is that it'll get him in Dutch with Muriel. He realizes that $2 million and keeping a promise makes you richer than $4 million and breaking one. Apparently, this attitude is now enough to qualify one as an eccentric--at one point, when Charlie remarked that anyone would have done what he did, the audience with whom I saw the film groaned at his naivet.
As long as the spirit of Charlie's generosity pervades the picture, Bergman is able to maintain the atmosphere of populism without any undue schmaltziness. He cuts it close by showing Charlie playing stickball in the street with the neighborhood kids, but at least he doesn't milk the scene too much. The directorial touch with most of the actors is right on the money--Wendell Pierce is a delight as Charlie's partner--and Bergman deftly brings off effects like the weaving of a Greek choruslike narrator (Isaac Hayes) in and out of the action. But when the script (based on true events), by Jane Anderson, requires Muriel to turn into a dragon-lady villainess who takes Charlie to divorce court to attach his gift to Yvonne, the movie's charm dissolves quickly. Bergman starts pushing the decency of Charlie and Yvonne--which, until then, had not been self-conscious--in our faces, to the point of piety.
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Until the picture makes this unhappy turn, Perez is quite funny, turning her lines into her customary trademark weirdness. Part of what makes it disconcerting when she turns nasty late in the film is that Perez plays her materialistic revelry early on with so much zest that it isn't entirely unappealing. Fonda's role is the least rich, as written--she's just the Girl Next Door with the Heart of Gold, more waiflike than usual--but she gives a heartfelt performance, her best so far. As for Cage, the part of Charlie marks a nice change for this first-rate star whose specialty is playing comically hangdog hunks. He's excellent at it, but it's good, for a change, to see him lighten up and smile.