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Birdcage a rollicking remake of La Cage aux Folles

THEBIRDCAGE

Directed by Mike Nichols.

Written by Elaine May; based on on the stage play "La Cage aux Folles" by Jean Poiret.

Starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane, Dianne Wiest, Hank Azaria, Christine Baranski, and Dan Futterman.

Sony Cheri.

By Scott C. Deskin
Chairman

Few films come along nowadays that effectively skewer conservative "family values" without first succumbing to their own whimsy. Even fewer Hollywood films take an established, successful French film and create something entertaining and relevant to today's audiences. In The Birdcage, an American remake of the French film La Cage aux Folles, director Mike Nichols does just that. And although the source material is about 20 years old, it's still funny as hell.

The story hasn't changed much from the original La Cage. Armand Goldman (Robin Williams) is the owner and musical director of the film's eponoymous nightclub, located in Miami's festive, skin-exposing South Beach. As the film opens, we get a glimpse of Armand, frantic backstage with his lover and star performer Albert (Nathan Lane). Middle-aged Albert has just fallen into one of his diva-like tantrums - he worries he may be Armand's "meal ticket" and suspects that Armand may be seeing another man. (In a way, Albert has a point: We don't see any overt display of affection between these characters on screen during the film.)

In fact, Armand sneaks off during the show only to greet his son Val (Dan Futterman). Val, a 20-year-old, well-adjusted college student, tells Armand how much he appreciates being raised in a stable home with a caring father and mother (Albert). Then Val drops the bombshell: He's engaged to be married to Barbara Keeley, a college sweetheart. Even worse, Barbara is the daughter of right-wing Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman), a politician up for re-election in a year of reemerging conservatism and "family values." Val asks for his father's blessing, and Armand reluctantly gives it to him.

Meanwhile, Senator Keeley's political career is sent reeling after his closest political ally - head of a coalition for moral reform - experiences his demise in the bed of a prostitute. While Keeley worries about evading the mob of reporters surrounding his house by climbing ladders and fences, his wife Louise (Dianne Wiest) feels that the newly-revealed engagement (and subsequent marriage) of their daughter Barbara is just the thing to "heal" the wounds of the family brought on by the media hounds. Of course, Barbara has to embellish on her fiancée's background: Val's father is a cultural attaché to Greece, and South Beach is just a stone's throw from Fisher Island, "where Jeb Bush lives."

As the Keeleys discreetly hit the road for South Beach, Val throws Armand's household into chaos: With the senator is on his way, Val wants everything vaguely risqué or sexual in the way of decor to be purged - only temporarily, of course. However, this means that effeminate Albert has to go too, which threatens Armand's and Albert's already tenuous relationship. With the flamboyant Guatemalan houseboy Agador (a wildly over-the-top Hank Azaria) demoted to straight-dressing house-servant status, and Val's biological mother Katharine (Christine Baranski) recruited for the evening, the scheme is nearly in place. When Keeley's family arrives, a host of disasters - accidental and purposeful - conspire to ruin the whole evening (not to mention Armand's sanity).

The themes and gags all trespass into familiar territory, especially during the climactic meeting between the two families where's Keeley's old-fashioned conservative remarks naturally provoke a response from Albert (e.g., a discussion about gays in the military brings up Alexander the Great). And the gay stereotypes in the film don't really rise above the baseline of common stereotypes. What makes the film work, however, is the brisk comic pacing of Nichol's direction and Elaine May's script (I guess I was wrong to write off May after seeing Ishtar.), as well as the solid performances. Gene Hackman always had the knack of making crusty characters likable, and Robin Williams gives a wonderful, restrained performance, confidently walking the line between serious drama and his usual comic zaniness. I also appreciate the nightclub's main theme: "We Are Family" gets across the film's message more effectively than, say, "It's Raining Men" would.

The Birdcage is highly enjoyable, bolstered by its stars as well as its production values; the bright pastel colors and art deco designs are a feast for the eyes. It's not bound to be a film of monumental social importance (if you want that, go rent Philadelphia). Instead, you identify with the characters as real people, not as social archetypes, so you can laugh with impunity.