Film Reviews

Family Values

They share a loving, long-term relationship based on shared interests, mutual respect and an immensely satisfying joint career. Of course, they have a squabble now and then. But, really, what marriage doesn't have its up and downs? The important thing is, they've been true to each other, and to themselves, for more than two decades. And they've been terrific parents in the bargain. "I'm the only guy in my fraternity," their son marvels, "who doesn't come from a broken home."

Indeed, if Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) weren't a gay couple, they might be viewed as the very embodiment of traditional family values.

Welcome to The Birdcage, a riotously funny comedy based on the 1978 French hit La Cage Aux Folles. Like the earlier film, the Americanized remake strikes an artful balance of zaniness and sentiment as it offers a modern-day variation of the classic door-slamming, identity-twisting farce. Unlike La Cage, however, The Birdcage has a sharply satirical and pointedly political edge, one that's scrupulously honed by director Mike Nichols and screenwriter Elaine May.

Just as important, The Birdcage benefits greatly from the timing of its release, coming as it does in the middle of an especially nasty presidential primary season. Just when it seems like every candidate worth a sound bite is trying to outdo his rivals in expressing intolerance for the unconventional, here is a comedy that actively embraces the very values that arch-conservatives insist are exclusively theirs. You could make a strong case that The Birdcage is the most subversive movie around right now.

Nichols and May have imaginatively transported the original plot from Paris to the anything-goes locale of South Beach, Florida. Armand is the owner-manager and Albert the star attraction at South Beach's most outrageous night spot, The Birdcage, a glitzy showcase for drag performers. But there's more to life than glitter and flash for the couple. Together, they've raised Val (Dan Futterman), the product of Armand's only heterosexual dalliance. And Val has always been grateful for the love and support of his doting parents. Until now.

Robin Williams has described The Birdcage as being a movie about "the cruelty of children," and to a large degree, he is dead-on correct.

Val has fallen in love with Barbara (Calista Flockhart), the daughter of a right-wing politician who might find Pat Buchanan too wishy-washy for his tastes. As a founding member of the Coalition for Moral Order, Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman) has based his career on standing steadfastly for God, flag and country. He takes a dim view of anything that he sees as a threat to American way of life. Naturally, he includes same-sex marriage on his list of un-American outrages. Just as naturally, Val doesn't want his future father-in-law to know the truth about Armand and Albert.

And so, at Val's insistence, Armand and Albert use all their show biz acumen to pull off the performance of a lifetime: they gamely struggle to appear perfectly "normal" -- and very, very straight -- during a dinner party with Senator Keeley and his wife (Dianne Wiest).

Williams is unusually subdued in The Birdcage, and his performance is all the more effective for its restraint. While he has more than his fair share of witty one-liners, and even gets to take a graceful pratfall now and then, he leaves most of the flamboyant stuff to Lane, who is marvelous, and Hank Azaria, who plays Agador, the couple's flighty houseboy. Lane is an endearing bundle of anxieties and insecurities, and can turn on a dime whenever he must switch from high camp to teary pathos. He and Williams work beautifully together, and not just while they're trading barbed quips. They actually manage to be credible as a long-married couple, bound by 20 plus years of shared intimacies and experiences.

Gene Hackman is even funnier here as a moralizing politician than he was in Get Shorty as an amoral B movie producer. Much of the humor stems from Senator Keeley's determination to maintain his spotless reputation in the wake of a colleague's scandalous demise. (The poor fellow died after a romp with an underage prostitute.) At first, he's greatly pleased to find that his future son-in-law's parents are so strait-laced and right-thinking. This, of course, sets him up to be the butt of a very big joke. Dianne Wiest provides fine support as the senator's dutiful wife, Louise, who recognizes long before her husband that things may not be quite as they appear.

As for the young lovers, Dan Futterman and Calista Flockhart are as good as they can be in roles as thankless as the ones played by Zeppo and various ingenues in the early Marx Brothers movies. Christine Baranski has a lot more fun in her brief but showy role as Val's biological mother, and Azaria manages to steal every scene that isn't nailed down with his servant who turns a humble bow into a gravity-defying contortion.

The Birdcage is very amusing as Albert is coached by Armand to appear as macho as possible. (Unfortunately, Albert can't even butter a piece of toast without looking, well, limp-wristed.) And it is downright hilarious when, having despaired of ever seeming like a regular guy, Albert dons matronly attire to pose as Val's "mother." But the comedy is never so broad, and the laughter is never so plentiful, that we lose sight of the movie's serious side. Albert and Armand love the boy they have raised so much that they're willing to sacrifice anything, even their self-esteem, to help him make a good impression on the parents of the young woman he wants to marry.

Without ever pushing too hard, Nichols, May and the first-rate cast give the frothy farce a touch of melancholy gravitas. In a sense, Albert and Armand are doing what gay people have always had to do in our largely heterosexual society: denying their true identities, their true selves, while passing as straight. The big difference here is, ultimately, they get to turn the tables in the most satisfying fashion imaginable. And better still, while doing so, they look marvelous.

The Birdcage. Directed by Mike Nichols. With Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane and Dianne Wiest. Rated R. 119 minutes.

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Joe Leydon