The Birdcage (1996)

Directed by Mike Nichols

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The Birdcage is a sweet, slapstick comedy about two gay men posing as a man and wife for the introduction to the very conservative parents of their son’s bride-to-be.  It contains all the expected sources of humor and conflict as well as the inevitable revelations in the third act.  But those story points are never rushed, and when they pass by they lead not so much to contrived conflict but instead a more wholesome sense of understanding between the wildly different characters.

When the film begins and the stage is set, of course the two sets of parents are on opposite sides of a spectrum.  Not only are Armand and Albert (Robin Williams, Nathan Lane) gay, but together they run a drag show.  Similarly but conversely not only are Kevin and Louise Keeley (Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest) conservative but he’s a senator who runs something called the Coalition for Moral Order and he has been in the middle of a scandal when his co-leader of the coalition is caught in bed with an underage prostitute.

All of these carefully arranged dominoes establish that there is a lot to lose and a lot that can (and will) go wrong later in the film.

Armand’s son, Val (Dan Futterman) shows up to tell his father he’s engaged to a classmate at college, Barbara (Calista Flockhart).  Because her parents are so very conservative he asks Armand to pretend to be straight when the Keeleys come down to Miami to meet them.  Because of the political scandal and a desire to get some good press, the Keeleys hope to host the wedding as soon as possible, pending the result of this first meeting with the other possible in-laws.

So everything works towards this eventual meeting, and the film takes its time getting there.  The meeting doesn’t happen at the start of act two and peel away plot points and revelations, instead it doesn’t even take place until halfway into the movie.

Most of the time ahead of this is focused on the relationship between Armand and Albert.  The truth is at first concealed from Albert and then revealed, allowing them to digest and response to these deceptions and what they mean to each other and to the people they’re trying to impress.  It’s in these moments that the film’s heart emerges.  Yes it leads to broadly comic moments, but there is empathy on the way there.

Then those more slapstick moments, while amusing, are what you’d expect.  They dress the apartment to hide some of the more flamboyant elements of the home, but they might have forgotten a detail here or there.  They try desperately to continue the ruse until eventually it collapses.

But then the fallout isn’t so severe.  The Keeleys aren’t exactly horrified, though there is other conflict to be navigated, and it works in such a way to encourage the two families to work together.

So this is a slapstick comedy with heart and a whole bunch of wonderful performances.  I suppose it’s as simple as that.

Up Next: Bad Times at the El Royale (2018), Every Thing Will Be Fine (2015), Kings of the Road (1976)

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