Directed by Mike Nichols. Starring Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest, Christine Baranski, Hank Azaria. (1996, R, 119 min.)
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., March 8, 1996
Fans of Edouard Molinaro's La Cage aux Folles may rest assured that Mike Nichols' adaptation of the famed French film (itself based on a French play) remains quite faithful to its predecessor. Reuniting with longtime writing collaborator Elaine May, Nichols features Williams as Armand Goldman, a gay, middle-aged nightclub owner whose 20-year-old son Val (Dan Futterman) returns home from college to announce his engagement to the daughter (Calista Flockhart) of a politically conservative U.S. senator. A moment of celebration in most households, Val's news wreaks havoc when he asks Armand to “play straight” for the benefit of his future in-laws, the head of the Coalition for Moral Order, Senator Keeley (Hackman) and his wife Louise (Wiest). While Armand may be up to the task, his partner and star of the nightclub's revue, Albert/Starina (Lane), does not rise to the occasion. At first. Highly temperamental and sensitive, Albert nonetheless steals the show when he passes for Armand's “wife” and almost convinces the Senator that the Goldman family is not only a beacon of conservative morals but also not Jewish. Updating the setting to Miami Beach energizes the film while the performances -- particularly the supporting roles -- make Nichols' version entertaining. Williams has his share of funny lines, but Lane receives the most laughs as the well-intentioned but emotionally unglued prima donna. Hackman and Wiest are a Democrat's worst nightmare with Wiest shining brightest toward the end of the film. As Val's birth mother Katherine, Baranski is all polish and subtle class. But the most hilarious performance in the film goes to Azaria as maid/butler Agador/Spartacus. Of television's now-defunct sitcom If Not For You, Azaria makes Agador a constant source of hilarity from his homespun advice to his transition from maid in a thong to butler in uniform for the senator's visit. Worth seeing for Azaria's performance alone, the film does an admirable job of transplanting La Cage aux Folles from Paris to Miami Beach without losing the culture. While I had difficulty understanding Armand's devotion to such a whiny and selfish son (primarily because of Futterman's acting), I enjoyed many of the other characters and Nichols' efforts to modernize and Americanize the story. A bit of a letdown in some ways, The Birdcage nonetheless features some scene-stealing performances.