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It's a Wonderful Lottery

It Could Happen To You proves itself a winning ticket

Judging by the films he's made -- most particularly his latest, It Could Happen To You -- Andrew Bergman is no relation whatsoever to the great and dour Swede, Ingmar. Ingmar's works often show that the bad things that happen to people lead to little more than a bad end. But Andrew's American vision shows that bad things happen to men and women only so that their final bliss will be that much more extreme.

This was the case with Matthew Broderick and Penelope Ann Miller in The Freshman, though their decent-people-in-love story felt a bit lost when paired with Marlon Brando's melancholy Don Corleone reprise. With Honeymoon in Vegas, the point of which was to demonstrate how far apart he could push a couple and still reassemble them -- comically, of course -- Bergman sharpened his focus. Bergman's movies' unfashionably innocent value system works, rather than cloys, because the old MGM musicals shaped his sense of what makes a good story and a good scene. His skydiving Elvi in Honeymoon in Vegas looked like theyÕd fallen out of one of those Busby Berkeley productions that must still be playing up in heaven somewhere. They were the perfect counterpoint to the film's vision of true and perfect love. As, for that matter, were the maniacal imperfections of star Nicolas Cage's character.

In It Could Happen to You, both Andrew Bergman and Cage (his Max von Sydow?) slow things down and take bigger chances. With Honeymoon In Vegas, Bergman's instincts no doubt told him he couldn't go wrong by filling a movie full of Elvis impersonators. With It Could Happen To You, he must have been less sure. Would a yarn about a good guy who just naturally does good things play with a modern, cynical audience? Everyone associated with this film, in fact, had to have faith that moviegoers would at least remember the concept of human kindness, and respond with nostalgia, if nothing else. Maybe this is a film that only someone who had to construct a vision of human goodness in order to keep his sanity -- that is, the son of concentration camp survivors, which Bergman is -- could pull off.

It Could Happen To You is surely a constructed vision, even if it's loosely based on the real-life story of a New York cop who shared his lottery winnings with a waitress. I'm told by an associate from up yonder that the cop in question had known the waitress for years, and that after the money had been split each remain-ed happily married to his or her original spouse. No story there.

And not the way the film version plays out. In screenwriter Jane Anderson's version, the cop, Charlie Lang (Cage), is plodding along through his marriage to Muriel (Rosie Perez), a beautician with visions, nay, delusions of grandeur. For her, Charlie the beat cop has proven a poor catch. She would probably have driven Charlie nuts if he didn't get to spend most of his waking hours working the job he loves. Yes, this is a fairy tale that posits Charlie as one citizen-protecting, stickball-teaching, baby-delivering public servant. As a gentle knight, in other words. Muriel functions brilliantly as the wicked stepmother, while Bridget Fonda's Yvonne, the forlorn waitress, makes a dandy damsel in distress.

You probably know the story's high concept by now: Charlie doesn't have money for a tip one morning, so he promises his stressed-out waitress (whom he's just met) that instead of leaving a quarter, he'll share his lottery winnings with her, should they come. They do, of course, to the comically and hysterically pitched excitement of Muriel. Everything that follows is predictable: Charlie convinces Muriel to share; Muriel becomes a version of Leona Helmsley; and Charlie's and Yvonne's inherent goodness eventually brings them together.

All of this is so predictable, and so apparently one- note, that Fonda and Cage get stars by their names for making it work. Fonda's role is almost completely unwritten. They just told her to get out there and charm, girl, and she did, melting hearts with her honest vulnerability. Cage has much more to do, but he's also the one who has to carry the burden of saintliness. He has just enough of his old, bug-eating craziness left in his eyes to make his character real. I was particularly pleased to see Yvonne deny that Charlie was a saint at all. No, she claims, after spending a day with him giving things away, he's something more rare. He's a human being.

Yes, this is a fantasy, but it's my kind of fantasy, and the crowd I saw it with was rooting the pair on in their provocative goodness. (When was the last time, in the movies at least, that generosity and kindness seemed the inevitable prelude to sex?)

It Could Happen to You is especially pleasing in the way it answers the wealth fantasies of the Reagan-Bush days, of which the gauche and grasping Muriel is an obvious parody. Not so long ago, truly pathetic movies such as Mr. Destiny couldn't imagine anything more potent than money, except maybe the generic concept of "having it all."

Not so It Could Happen to You. Though the second half drops off, and the final scene betrays the film's money-isn't-everything convictions, the movie does give the feeling that becoming a well-paid machine is no longer our only operative national fantasy.

 
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