The Caged Bird Laughs

Mike Nichols's The Birdcage has a lot in common with Two Much. Both contemporary comedies make extensive use of bustling Miami Beach as a location. Both stories center on characters who pretend to be somebody they aren't. And neither Birdcage director Nichols nor Two Much star Melanie Griffith has enjoyed an unqualified hit since Working Girl.

But the similarities end there. The Birdcage is funny. Two Much couldn't get laughs at a nitrous oxide party. Credit Elaine May, who wrote The Birdcage's droll, whipsmart script. Once upon a time in the late Fifties the director and screenwriter headlined a comedy revue on Broadway; An Evening with Nichols and May enjoyed a successful year-long run. As the Sixties dawned they split up and both answered Hollywood's siren call. Nichols hit the filmmaking equivalent of a grand slam in his second trip to the plate as a director, helming the classic The Graduate in 1968. In addition to the above-mentioned Working Girl, his filmography includes Catch-22, Carnal Knowledge, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Silkwood. But Nichols has directed a string of disappointments in recent years, culminating in 1994's howler Wolf.

May enjoyed some Tinseltown success early on as well, co-authoring Heaven Can Wait and directing the chronically underrated The Heartbreak Kid. But May earned a spot in motion picture infamy, going down as the writer-director of record on perhaps the most maligned movie ever made, Ishtar. The Birdcage should go a long way toward restoring both talented filmmakers' reputations; the film is such an unexpected delight (so many Hollywood remakes of French romantic comedies pull up lame that you had to expect the worst of this one) that it virtually guarantees future Nichols-May screen collaborations. It's a cliche, but maybe they just bring out the best in each other.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that they get outstanding performances across the board from a stellar cast headed by Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, and Gene Hackman. Williams goes low-key all the way as drag cabaret owner Armand, the calm eye at the center of a comic hurricane that begins brewing when Armand's straight 20-year-old son Val (Dan Futterman) announces his engagement to the seventeen-year-old daughter of arch-conservative Senator Keeley (Hackman, ever the pro). Armand, his flamboyantly overwrought lover Albert (Lane), and their handsome houseboy Agador (a buff, shirtless Hank Azaria) go into overdrive concocting a charade of a "normal" family for Val so as not to scandalize the uptight new in-laws when they come to South Beach to visit.

Nathan Lane, a Broadway fixture whose most popular screen performance to date came as the voice of the scene-stealing meerkat Timon in The Lion King, may be the only actor in America capable of holding his own with Williams in a no-holds-barred clown-off. Here he feeds off Williams's restraint, going hysterically over-the-top throughout, but taking care to make Albert real and avoid obvious stereotypes. He pulls off the balancing act to hilarious effect. When an emergency swish-ectomy on Albert proves a dismal failure, the boys improvise Plan B: Albert, drawing from his years of experience as a drag diva, poses as Val's mother.

May and Nichols depart from La Cage aux Folles mainly to work in a few topical barbs at the expense of the religious right. (Senator Keeley flees Washington partly to escape media scrutiny following the death of his long-time political ally and cofounder of the Coalition for Moral Order who expired in bed after having sex with an underage black prostitute.) But fans of the original stage play or the 1978 film are not likely to complain; this is the sharpest, wittiest U.S. adaptation of a French farce in recent memory. Which provokes the question: Is it too soon for May and Nichols to remake Two Much?

The Birdcage. Written by Elaine May; directed by Mike Nichols; with Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, and Hank Azaria.

 
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