“The Birdcage” is a scream. It may not have seemed that the world needed a remake of “La Cage aux Folles,” the 1978 French smash hit that spawned two sequels plus a Broadway musical, but Mike Nichols and Elaine May, in their first official screen collaboration, have scored with a riotous comedy whose irreverent topicality is one of its most refreshing components. Performed with matchless aplomb and made with plush professionalism, pic serves up pure pleasure from beginning to end and should draw strongly from all audience sectors on its way to major B.O.
In its expertly judged sense of farce, surprising humanity, success at sustaining a manic high-wire act and sheer self-confidence, the American comedy this new film most resembles is “Tootsie.” Perhaps not coincidentally, both deal with men in drag, but while superbly carrying on the “Charley’s Aunt” tradition of elaborate female disguise, they have ambitions that run slightly deeper. Although “Tootsie” didn’t credit her contribution, both also owe quite a bit to May.
Perhaps this story of a middle-aged gay couple’s comic encounter with a self-righteously straight and conservative family would have its place in any era, but it particularly feels like a breath of fresh air right now, in an election year when moral issues are being brandished with such pretentious and, no doubt, hypocritical ponderousness. “The Birdcage” scores any number of points at the expense of pontificators of all persuasions, from Bob Dole to Al Sharpton , although it saves some special ammo for the lemmings of the news media.
Ushering the audience into the story’s world with a breathtaking opening shot that sweeps the viewer over the water toward the glittering nocturnal skyline of Miami’s South Beach, then into the titular club and all the way backstage, pic deftly intros its central characters. Armand (Robin Williams) runs the hugely successful boite, where the family-oriented drag revue is headed by “Starina,” otherwise known as Albert (Nathan Lane). Although the more “masculine” Armand must frequently calm and placate the campy and often hysterical Albert, the two have enjoyed a strong personal and professional relationship for 20 years and have successfully raised Armand’s son, Val (Dan Futterman).
Complications click in when Val arrives to announce that he intends to get married. After the initial dismayed flutterings, Armand and Albert accept the news, but then learn that Val’s future father-in-law is Republican Sen. Keeley (Gene Hackman), co-founder of the Coalition for Moral Order. Keeley needs to get away for a while to escape the scandal surrounding the unseemly death of his right-wing political cohort, so he and his prim-and-proper wife (Dianne Wiest) and daughter, Barbara (Calista Flockhart), steal off to drop in on the menagerie in Miami, under the impression that their hosts will be the Greek cultural attache and his wife.
The impending visit throws the household into a tizzy, with Val insisting that the apartment be temporarily cleansed of all gaudy and gay art and bric-a-brac and Albert asked to vacate the premises just for the evening to allow Armand to convey an impression of propriety and rectitude. After a major snit, Albert, in some of the funniest scenes, attempts to act “straight,” but this is all an appetizer for his appearance in drag as Val’s “mom” at the climactic third-act dinner party, a perfect setup for classic farce if there ever was one.
The filmmakers have strayed from the structure and characters of the original nary at all, but have adapted it all to a contempo American context with dizzying skill. The ultra-trendy and colorful South Beach setting, with toned, tanned and virtually naked bodies constantly parading along the beach front, couldn’t be more appropriate, and production designer Bo Welch, costume designer Ann Roth and lenser Emmanuel Lubezki, among many others, have combined to create a seamlessly concocted world in which it is hard to determine where reality ends and artifice begins.
Just as in their routines when they were a team in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Nichols and May are at their best with political and cultural humor. A reactionary politician is an easy target, of course, but the digs at Hackman’s public image-obsessed senator are relentlessly clever and on the mark, as are the jibes at unscrupulous journalists. Final exchange of dialogue, involving Hackman’s character, brings down the house in the manner of the famous “nobody’s perfect” line in “Some Like It Hot.”
Nichols has been a master of this sort of sophisticated boulevard comedy since his breakthrough as a hot theater director more than 30 years ago, so it is not surprising that the performers, and their timing, are dead-on. In one of his welcome restrained outings, Williams modulates his characterization beautifully, depending upon the role Armand is required to play at any given moment: father, endlessly tolerant companion, club boss and “straight” man in the big dinner scene. A major highlight is Armand’s reunion with Val’s mother, played keenly by Christine Baranski, in which they recall his one night of heterosexuality some 20 years before.
Lane has all the showy opportunities as the ultra-feminine Albert, and this outstanding Broadway star, little seen up to now in films, makes the most of them, mincing, pouting, posing and cavorting to hilarious and heartwarming effect. Although the gay lifestyles on display here are decidedly old school, the characters’ underlying fierce pride, along with the piece’s resilient defense of an alternative family structure, will win over all but the most doctrinaire political standard-bearers.
Hackman neatly essays the stuffy, platitudinous conservative politico, while Wiest, as his supportive wife, takes a role that amounted to nothing in the original and wrings loads of laughs out of a gratifyingly expanded part. Hank Azaria also generates major laughs as Armand and Albert’s outrageously fey houseboy, while Futterman and Flockhart are appealing enough as the hopeful young couple.
Soundtrack includes a number of disco and Latin tunes as well as three recycled Stephen Sondheim songs.