Any Which Way You Caan

With Mel Brooks on the skids, Eddie Murphy retooling as Mr. Romantic, and Woody Allen all tied up in divorce court, somebody in the movies had to pick up the slack...yukwise. Enter Andrew Bergman, the fellow New York Magazine dubbed "The Unknown King of Comedy" back in 1985. Unknown no longer, he began to attract attention as a writer/director with The In-Laws (1979) and hit his stride two years ago with The Freshman, a terrific sleeper in which a bloated but inspired Marlon Brando took off on the entire Don Corleone myth. (And, in the process, gave a rather good idea of what a humpback whale might do on the ice rink.)

Bergman's new comedy, Honeymoon in Vegas, employs the kind of frantic, overheated shtick that causes lesser comedians to implode. But Bergman has been around the laugh track a couple of times (he's also contributed, writing-wise, to Blazing Saddles, Fletch, and Soapdish); he knows just when to turn up the steam and when to back off. That's the essence of his style, actually -- restraint amid the guffaws. Call it Bergmanesque. Ingrid and Ingmar probably won't mind. Nor will Woody.

His timing here could hardly be improved upon, and once again he's imparted a little comic underspin to the Godfather cult -- along with Vegas vulgarity and the lunatic fringes of Presley-mania. Go ahead -- bust a gut. Despite its seeming familiarity, this is one of the most original comedies of the year, imbued with the director's taste for the absurd.

The hero is one Jack Singer (offbeat Nicolas Cage, playing against type), a likable, down-at-the-heels New York private eye who specializes in low-renttail jobs on wayward spouses and who hazards the occasional $50 on the Knicks or the Fighting Irish. Jack's a slightly bewildered Everyman, just like Clark Kellogg, the overmatched N.Y.U. film student from New England in The Freshman, but he's got another problem, too: On her deathbed, his nutty mother (Anne Bancroft, in a ten-second cameo) has extracted a promise that he'll never get married. This awful curse irks wide-eyed Jack, who's haunted by dreams of dear old Mom cavorting in the nude, but it drives his beloved girlfriend, Betsy (Sarah Jessica Parker), bonkers. What she wants most from Jack is commitment.

All right, then, The Plunge. Scared of losing his girl, he relents. No sooner do Jack and Betsy touch down in Las Vegas, wedding capital of Trashy America and weekend host to a virtual plague of Elvis imitators, than Mama's ghost starts taking her revenge. Her agent turns out to be a wiseguy gambler named Tommy Korman, all slicked up in sharkskin and surrounded by stumbling henchmen. Tommy takes one look across the Bally's lobby at Betsy and sees in her the reincarnation of his late, lamented wife, Donna, the fatal victim of her own suntan.

Who else but James Caan, looking a little weatherbeaten and leathery himself these days, could so ably essay the role of this latter-day Sonny Corleone? Caan has played for laughs before, but Tommy might be his own comic masterpiece -- volatile, foolish, slightly scary all in one. It takes him only a minute to lure the unwitting Jack into a fixed poker game, just a minute longer to make Jack an offer he can't refuse -- a weekend with Betsy in lieu of the $65,000 Jack has just lost.

Thus does Jack's frenetic, sleepless chase ensue from Vegas to Manhattan to Kauai and back again, punctuated by encounters with a bookie/dentist (John Capodice) who has three TV sets (football, horses, hoop) blaring away next to his chair, a Hawaiian tribal chief (Peter Boyle) who belts out show tunes, and an army of Elvises in every size, color, and nationality. Boxer Earnie Shavers pops up in one cameo; former UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian in another, as -- what else? -- a card shark.

While Caan, all tongue-in-cheek and tough-guy pose, tends to steal Honeymoon in much the same way Brando stole The Freshman, Cage admirably plays the straight man here, and Parker (the wonderfully ditzy valley girl opposite Steve Martin in L.A. Story) announces her own arrival as a comic talent. In the end, though, it's Bergman's own playful intelligence that wins the day: He invests his big set pieces (a skyful of parachuting Elvises, for instance) and his tiniest moments (a hopeless square at the airport laboriously negotiating the best fare to Milwaukee) with equal verve and care. Bergman handles his actors beautifully and provides Honeymoon in Vegas with a wild, farcical sheen that never overwhelms the essential sweetness of the tale.

HONEYMOON IN VEGAS
Written and directed by Andrew Bergman; with Nicolas Cage, Sarah Jessica Parker, James Caan, and Peter Boyle.

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