Queens of the absurd

Robin Williams and Nathan Lane flitter about The Birdcage

Mike Nichols' new film, The Birdcage, has most of the trappings of a typical domestic comedy: Val (David Futterman) returns from college to announce to his father, Armand (Robin Williams), that he's engaged to the daughter of a right-wing U.S. senator (Gene Hackman). The senator is embroiled in a controversy, and goes to meet Armand and plan his daughter's wedding as a means of distracting the press from the scandal.

What makes the story absurdist is that Val is the offspring of Armand's one-night heterosexual encounter; for the past 20 years, Dad has been happily bound to his drag-queen companion, Albert (Nathan Lane). Because Albert doesn't fit into the senator's notions of traditional family values, Val wants to hide Albert from his future in-law's scrutiny. His efforts to keep the lid on his alternative upbringing forms the nucleus of the film's plot.

Like all great farce, though, what makes The Birdcage interesting is not the details of its plot but that it transcends plot. In classic comedic style, form supersedes substance: The attendance of the senator and his family at a predictably disastrous get-to-know-the-in-laws dinner party is necessary only in that it serves as the obstacle around which the central action must navigate.

The Birdcage, like the French film and play on which it is based, La Cage aux Folles, also makes a social statement. The film isn't meant just to make you laugh, but to think as well--about gender roles and conservative politics and "family values." Here, it is the hetero couple (Hackman and Dianne Wiest) whose marriage seems barren, and who put themselves so high on a pedestal that they cannot withstand close scrutiny. The gay couple have a stable home life that only becomes disrupted when judgmental society pokes its nose where it shouldn't.

As a director, Nichols has rarely been a strong personality in his films. His most justly acclaimed success, The Graduate, came early in his career, and other than the topics he chooses (skewering war in Catch-22, sexual politics in Carnal Knowledge, or nuclear power plants in Silkwood) you don't get much of a feeling that he's ever developed an individual style.

That's true in The Birdcage, too. He places the characters in wonderfully decorated sets--Armand and Albert's apartment is all trashy pornographic artwork and Miami day-glo colors, then gets transformed into the drab, spartan look of a medieval castle--turns the camera on, and then lets the events play themselves out without much of an idea how they're working. Nichols ends up coasting on the performances, mostly Williams and Lane's, and the strengths--and weaknesses--of Elaine May's script.

May and Nichols were a hugely successful comedy team in the '50s and '60s, so it's no wonder that the script contains the scathing humor of a brave, intelligent stand-up comedian. May's dialogue is seasoned with some beautifully irreverent lines. Especially when it attacks conservative politics with timeliness and bite, it mirrors the original La Cage aux Folles to its detriment. In the same way that the senator gets trapped by the press at Armand's drag club and must find a way to escape unnoticed, the movie tries vainly to extricate itself from its story.

The Birdcage is jam-packed with sight gags, but none is funnier than Nathan Lane, a punch line unto himself; as he walks, his hips swish, his hands float in the air as if held up by balloons, and his smile precedes him wherever he goes.

When Albert learns that Val is in town, he goes shopping and everyone in the neighborhood treats him with respect and affection. Albert may be neurotic and vain, but there's not a mean bone in his body, and it brightens up every room when he's in it. Watching the grandly effeminate Albert training himself how to act manly (dropping his pinkie when he drinks, not coming apart at the seams at the slightest trouble), then eventually giving over totally to his feminine urges and passing himself off as Val's portly mother (he looks like Truman Capote without the affectation) is the film's comedic capstone.

If Lane is all blubbery comic emoting, Williams, for once, is the grounding influence. In the early scenes he appears to have returned to the fey, lisping schtick he employed in his stand-up days, but he drops that crutch quickly, and Armand takes full shape as a person. He never upstages Lane, but lets the comic energy lead the film where it will go, not where he would take it. It's a performance of maturity and confidence, and even after Mrs. Doubtfire, a risky one.

Cross-dressing has been a staple of comedy since before Moliere, and modern comics from Milton Berle to the Kids in the Hall have not been above using it for mere effect. While the gags involving Albert are undeniably funny, the film's humor resonates because Albert and Armand are essentially as bourgeois as the senator. The mission of The Birdcage is to convey the universality of its themes; rarely has farce been as profound in its whimsy.

The Birdcage. United Artists. Robin Williams, Nathan Lane, Gene Hackman, Dianne Wiest. Written by Elaine May. Directed by Mike Nichols. Opens March 8.

 
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