The Birdcage (1996)

Have you ever watched a movie you haven’t seen not in a long time, remembering how good it was and telling your friends all about it, then you watch it again and you’re like, “Is that all there is”? That’s what it was like for me watching “The Birdcage” for the first time since its release. Now, to be fair, when I first saw it I had never seen the 1978 classic original nor its Broadway iteration so perhaps the story and plot were more entertaining to me then than now, but somehow I don’t think that has much to do with it, because the original’s overstuffed, farcical plot is its weak link, because it succeeds thanks to the interactions among the characters and the hysterically funny script. But here, it all just seems so… forced. It’s clear that director Mike Nichols has a reverence for the source material but it’s overkill: He jams his characters into the situations dictated by the original movie’s plot, but that movie follows a plot that’s based on cultural and time-specific mores so it doesn’t make a lot of sense here. Luckily, Nichols is blessed with a first-rate cast that seems thrilled to be there: Robin Williams and Nathan Lane make a totally believable long-married couple having to go back in the closet for an evening, while Dianne Wiest and Calista Flockhart make the most out of limited lines and rushed screentime. But Hank Azaria’s Agador is a cringy, painfully racist Latin stereotype whose hilarious lines are marred by wince-inducing social context (including the role’s whitewashing, from a Black man in the original to a white man playing a Latin stereotype here), while Dan Futterman flounders in a thankless role as the couple’s son Val, unable to flesh out the character’s sourpuss demeanor in order to find the humor there (just imagine what Paul Rudd could have done with this character). So in the end, it’s worth watching if only for the chemistry among the cast and the good will they’re able to extend to the rest of the narrative, but it’s deeply flawed and not nearly as funny as you remember.

Rating: ★★★ (out of 5)

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