Dated 'Birdcage' amuses again Movie review: Robin Williams is flashy, but quiet, and Nathan Lane is simply outstanding in this play on "La Cage Aux Folles" which, in the end, brings us all together.

March 08, 1996|By STEPHEN HUNTER | STEPHEN HUNTER,SUN FILM CRITIC

"The Birdcage" seems unstuck in time.

Though flashily acted by Robin Williams and particularly the flamboyant Nathan Lane, the movie tells us more about 1978, when its original source "La Cage Aux Folles" was made, than it does about the '90s, when it purportedly takes place. It's a case of deja vu all over again -- the second time around. Actually, it feels like the 10th time around. The small, wicked French comedy became a musical stage hit on Broadway for many years, featuring among other lost stars Gene Barry and Ricardo Montalban, that famous "Corinthian leather" TV huckster.

The premise is brilliant, of course, a sturdy foundation for farce. Armand and Albert, two homosexuals, have been living happily au pair for a number of years, Armand the owner and Albert the star of a fabulously successful drag nightclub. Years back, Armand had a fling into heterosexuality, which union produced a son, whom he has raised. The boy turns out not to be gay at all.

Now the boy, a young man, is returning home from college, bringing in tow his new fiance and his fiance's parents, who are extremely conservative people. He requests that his father and Uncle Albert pretend to be straight for the duration of the visit, and thus the core of the piece is a blast of physical comedy as Uncle Albert, the particularly effeminate drag queen, attempts to go macho for a week.

Unspooling in the '90s, the film has all kinds of problems it just barely trumps on the antic strength of its zaniness.

The first is that now the son's request of his father seems deeply offensive. The little snot! How dare he! The father is what the father is, he gave him sperm, DNA, love, a secure upraising, as well as a college education. This boy (played unimpressively by Dan Futterman) needs a trip to the woodshed, to be taught to honor the man who made the world so comfortable for him.

Scenarist Elaine May makes a game but not entirely successful attempt to make the piece releveant to our era. She's imagined the parents of the fiance not merely as culturally conservative, but as a professionally conservative. Father (Gene Hackman) is Senator Keeley, a right-winger in the middle of a thinly imagined and dramatized political crisis, which requires that for his survival he kowtow to the religious right and push the line of his rectitude and moral supremacy over all forms of licentiousness, including the gay lifestyle. His wife (Dianne Wiest) is merely a ditz.

Almost none of this works. It is beyond May's imagination to understand how conservative brains operate, and she reduces the Keeleys to blow-hard cartoons. They just feel unhuman, not characters at all but wind-up dolls who spout hot air and patriotic bromides and seem not to have human brains or emotional ranges. They could have saved millions in salary by using cardboard cut-outs of Sen. and Mrs. Trent Lott, or some such.

More offensively, the movie takes place in a world where homosexuality is still a deviance: It's not the stuff of real life, as lived by real people. Rather it's exotic, flamboyant, almost phantasmagoric, a universe of swishy camp and arched pinkies.

Franklin Pangborn used to do the limp-wristed fairy thing in the Hollywood of the Thirties to the amusement of the heterosexual world, and "The Birdcage," despite its nominal agenda of tolerance, doesn't really move that far from the Pangborn impersonation.

Yet, still, the movie works rather than doesn't work, though it's too loud and too long. It works on the strength of Williams and Lane, and if you have a movie where Robin Williams is the quiet one, then you know you're onto something.

Lane, a Broadway star with a bit of movie experience, most memorably as one of the voices in "The Lion King," is a trip and a half. Imagine Judy Garland's heart, Bette Davis' sense of theater, Bette Midler's brazen vitality, Elizabeth Taylor's regality and Jane Russell's falsies, all settled on one guy. Now imagine him in the persona of a kind of dumpy, short guy who hasn't noticed that he's dumpy and short. Give him the guts of a burglar, the monumental self-pity of Piaf and the polyurethane eyelashes of Carol Channing. Wind him up and watch him go.

Much in the way that Williams' clowning moved the dramatically inert and obvious "Good Morning, Vietnam" into the win column years back, so does Lane's mad, gay screwball punch "The Birdcage" into the end zone.

Even when the movie is boring the pants off you (a long and tedious dinner party, full of spilled soup and dropped salads), Lane can sashay in and blow all the tedium away with a single, queenly flick of his ample tush.

And finally there's a very nice ending.

In these divisive, tribal times, it's neat that May and director (and ex-partner) Mike Nichols have come up with something that brings us together, straight and gay, left and right, instead of pushes us apart. That in itself may make the previous hours worth sitting through.

'The Birdcage'

Starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane

Directed by Mike Nichols

Released by United Artists

Rated PG-13 (sexual inuendo)

Sun Score: ***

Pub Date: 3/08/96

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