The Birdcage

Movie Review #875

“THE BIRDCAGE” FEATURES EXCELLENCE FROM BOTH ITS CAST AND ITS WRITING. ANYONE WANT SECONDS?

★★★½
By Alexander Diminiano

birdcage

Released March 8, 1996 (nationwide)
Comedy
Rated R (contains profanity)
117 minutes

“So this is Hell, and there’s a crucifix in it.” – Robin Williams in “The Birdcage”

It seems that, following his marriage to Diane Sawyer in 1988, director Mike Nichols began to embrace a political side of moviemaking. It’s rather obvious in “The Birdcage”, but if anything, it works out well for this film. This is a remake of the Franco-Italian film “La Cage aux Folles”, concerning a gay, Jewish couple in South Beach, Florida who makes a living running a drag show on the floor below their apartment. Everything is going well, until they start facing the troubles of their son’s oncoming marriage. The woman he is going to wed is the daughter of an unmistakably Republican U.S. Senator and his unmistakably Republican wife. They want to meet the in-laws, but they aren’t exactly aware of how little they would approve of them.

Robin Williams and Nathan Lane play the gay couple with such hilarity. Once Williams realizes just who the in-laws are, he begins desperately trying to force the ostentatious Lane out of the house. But he only achieves that for about five minutes, because Lane feels heartbroken and abandoned. Williams then decides gives him lessons on how to act “like a man.” Clearly, Williams can’t pull it off entirely himself, but watching Lane is a whole ‘nother story. He acts Williams to give him a visual. “John Wayne,” Williams replies, noting that this is an actor Lane’s character is quite a fan of.

It goes on like this. Practically every move made in “The Birdcage” tells us that everyone may be nervous for the wedding itself, except for the couple in the lead role. They’re worried that the wedding won’t happen because the stubborn Republican in-laws won’t approve of them. Elaine May (“Heaven Can Wait”) takes her red pen to the original screenplay and instead of rewriting it, tweaks it to her own taste. This update of “La Cage aux Folles” is still tremendously funny. It’s a bit edgier, but in a seemingly harmless manner. If anything, “The Birdcage” embraces various stereotypes in a way that says the stereotypes are utterly wrong. I would argue that the film is more offensive to Conservative Republicans than to homosexuals.

“The Birdcage” is a two-hour caricature, and although that’s exactly why it works, it’s occasionally why it doesn’t work. The script is such an over-the-top depiction of the respective parents of the bride and groom, that it relies on its cast to make it work. And the cast is outstanding. I can’t compliment Robin Williams and Nathan Lane enough on their performances if I had the time to do so. Nor can I quite express how wonderful Gene Hackman is as the radical Republican Senator, unless I settle for pulling quotes from his dialogue. Dianne Wiest plays his agreeing wife, and she’s quite a hoot as well. And let’s not forget Hank Azaria, the character actor who’s just as much a gutbuster as always. But the husband-and-wife-to-be seem less concerned about making the movie than they do about making the money from the movie they’re making. They’re played by Calista Flockhart and Dan Futterman, and I hadn’t even heard of them until now. (Truth be told, I should at least know who Flockhart is, given that her husband is Harrison Ford.)

“The Birdcage” bears a heavier dramatic side than the comedy it roots from. The story opens and closes with Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family” playing at the drag show. The song fits well, because this isn’t about the hardships gays face in a society that looks down on their preferences. It’s about two men who don’t mind how others perceive them, unless it’s their family. With that at the center of its story, “The Birdcage” feels more complete. Even with its flaws, it’s a great tragicomedy.

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