This modernized, brittle version of "La Cage" is very funny, it is also without heart.


A Illusion review by Joan Ellis.

"The Birdcage" is showing its age. This latest take on "La Cage aux Folles" is curiously flat in spite of the very big talents of Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, and Dianne Wiest. Elaine May and Mike Nichols have teamed up to update the dialogue and direction. Cast and production team just couldn't be better--so what's wrong?

Start with the story. Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) have raised Val (Dan Futterman), Armand's son by his one experience with a woman 20 years back. Now Val has announced the unthinkable: he is going to marry a girl, and the girl is the daughter of Senator and Mrs. Keely.

The senator, a giant in "The Coalition for Moral Order," has recently announced his support for presidential candidate Eli Jackson, who has just been found dead in the bed of a black prostitute who heard her customer's last words: "Your money's on the dresser, Chocolate." The senator and his wife bring along an appropriate load of anxiety when they arrive in South Beach to meet the parents of their daughter's intended. Will Val's parents be put off by Keely's embarrassing endorsement of a fallen leader of "family values?"

In South Beach, meanwhile, Armand is staging an elaborate charade for his son. To create a mainstream family, he enlists Val's mother Katherine (Christine Baranski) to play her real role and tries unsuccessfully to hide Albert, who refuses to be left out of the proceedings.

The earlier film and stage play did all this with a grand blend of hilarity and pathos. In 1996, the assumptions seem all wrong. The decade has given us state-of-the-moment drag films ("Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," "Paris is Burning") that advanced public understanding of the transvestite culture. Watching Albert try to walk like John Wayne and keep a stiff wrist is a little like watching Butterfly McQueen play Prissy in "Gone With the Wind." The world has moved beyond the stereotype--a little, at least.

Robin Williams responds by playing Armand with quiet dignity. Dianne Wiest and Gene Hackman have a field day straight-facing the Moral Coalition couple that Elaine May created to bring the story into the 90s. Mr. Hackman, just by mouthing right-wing pieties without embellishment, pierces the skin of the hypocrisy. Christine Baranski jumps into the pretense with high spirits, only to stand mute when her role is dropped. Nathan Lane's caricature performance is part of the problem.

Topical it may be, but the warmth is gone. There isn't a scintilla of evidence of real affection between Armand and Albert, no feel of their love for Val or his for them. The film is powered only by the desperate need to fool the Keelys. Asking too much? Perhaps. But if this modernized, brittle version of "La Cage" is very funny, it is also without heart. On the road to topical comedy, it lost its power to be affecting.

Film Critic : JOAN ELLIS
Word Count : 491
Studio : United Artists
Rating : R
Running Time: 1h57m

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