By Stacey Richter
CAN A MOVIE have a stupid plot and still be good? Two recent comedies, If Lucy Fell and The Birdcage, can't help but pose the question. Both have annoying, contrived plot lines brightened by funny, engaging moments.
If Lucy Fell, a small-scale romantic comedy from Eric Schaeffer (whose first film was the self-financed My Life's in Turnaround, about his life as a New York cab driver), came as a pleasant surprise. I'd heard about the story, and it sounded dumb. Two friends living in New York swear to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge if they don't find true love before turning 30. Lucy (Sarah Jessica Parker) is a quirky psychotherapist with a really nice office and a boyfriend she doesn't much like. Her pal Joe (Eric Schaeffer) is a painter obsessed with the girl in the apartment across the air shaft (Elle Macpherson, scantily clad). Spurred by their pact, Lucy resolves to dump her crutch of a boyfriend and look for true love; Joe vows to finally talk to the girl in the window.
They're only half-serious about jumping off the bridge--rich, pretty Manhattanites with huge apartments aren't likely candidates for plunging deaths. Still, this "device" propels the film along, even though we're not really expected to take it seriously. Worse still are the subplots: Lucy and Joe want to start a grade school, but first Lucy needs to learn to get closer to her distant but loving father. It all scans like a simple psychological lesson from an episode of Xena: Warrior Princess without Xena's campy charm.
On the other hand, the dialogue in If Lucy Fell is just great at times. In the middle portion of the film, between when the plot is set up and resolved, the movie is surprisingly funny and smart. Lucy gives psychological consultations to little kids in exchange for milk money. (She advises one little boy who complains that the tooth fairy only left him a quarter to give the money back to his mom and say, "If that's all the tooth fairy can afford, then she needs it more than I do.") The sexy patter between Schaeffer and Macpherson is also witty, but best of all is Ben Stiller's performance as Bwick, the pretentious but sweet painter who sweeps Lucy off her feet. Stiller has the stupid art-boy part down exactly right, and everything he says is hysterical--even seemingly innocent lines like, "You have an art show."
Mike Nichols' The Birdcage, a big budget production by a famous Hollywood director, is as different from If Lucy Fell as you can get, except that they share the same basic problem--dumb plots. Dumb plots where the characters learn a little something about caring and sharing--about the amount of insight that fits in a fortune cookie. Nevertheless, The Birdcage, a remake of the 1978 La Cage Aux Folles, can be extremely funny at times. This story involves a gay drag club owner, Armand Goldman (Robin Williams), who lives with his star performer and longtime boyfriend Albert (Nathan Lane). Turns out Armand's son Val (Dan Futterman) wants to marry the daughter of a right-wing, homophobic, antisemetic senator up for re-election (Gene Hackman). Val begs the flouncy Albert and his dad to act like straight people to impress the senator.
All I have to say is, if Val wants to marry that girl and her family doesn't like it, he should do what Dustin Hoffman and Catherine Ross did in The Graduate--also directed by Nichols--and run off together. As it is, Val, a supposedly sympathetic character, ends up looking like a jerk for asking his dad and Albert, who obviously love him to death, to hide who they are.
The plot of The Birdcage jerks us from one unsettling relationship to the next--Armand and Albert are supposed to be devoted to each other but they never even kiss. In fact, Armand seems perpetually annoyed by the shrill, neurotic Albert--they're like Ricky and Lucy without the affection. What this depressing plot does manage to do is get a right-wing senator into a room with a couple of raging queens for what turns out to be a very funny scene.
There are plenty of bright spots in this film--Hank Azaria (the voice of Apu on The Simpsons) is terrific as Agador, the Guatemalan houseboy unable to wear shoes. The script, written by Nichols' old comedy partner Elaine May, is pretty funny, actually. If only there was a way to separate the good lines from their stupid, lesson-bearing plots, both these movies could qualify as intelligent entertainment for grown-ups.
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