As the opening credits of The Birdcage came and passed on screen I had a realization: I haven’t seen very many Robin Williams movies. Thinking back on the handful that I have seen (many of them seen a very long time ago), I remember them fondly. I don’t really have a segue or continuation to this thought other than I think I’d like to try and watch more of the late Mr. Williams’ films this year.
Despite having many moving parts, the basic premise of The Birdcage is very simple. Gay father and his uber-flamboyant partner need to act like a traditional Reaganistic family for a night when they meet their son’s wife-to-be and her hard right wing conservative parents. Goofs ensue.
Once you start breaking it down further, The Birdcage gets a bit more difficult to describe. This movie features an ensemble cast of characters, all whom get plenty of screen time and dialogue to flesh them out in much more depth than I can do justice in a single paragraph. I was surprised to see that Robin Williams plays it rather restrained and subtle in the character of Armand, the owner of a drag club in South Beach, Florida and father to Val, the young man getting married. Armand’s partner, Albert (Nathan Lane) is quite the opposite: flamboyant and bombastic with Lane chewing scenery like it was his breakfast the whole way through. Don’t get me wrong, Lane is amazing the whole way through, no matter what outdated gay stereotypes he embodies to the nth degree. On the other end of the spectrum, Gene Hackman (who plays hyper-Republican Senator Kevin Keeley) distills the essence of late ‘80s conservative movements like the PMRC (which was still around when this movie came out) into a single character. Even Val (Dan Futterman), Armand’s son, is a more interesting character than I expected, having never met his real mother, and accepting Albert as a guardian, but still clamming up over how people will think of him when they meet his father. And all this is not including Val’s mother or his fiancee, let alone secondary characters like Senator Keeley’s wife or Armand and Albert’s tall, dark, and handsome housekeeper, Agador Spartacus (yes, really his credited name) all whom are interesting, or at the very least entertaining throughout.
Everybody has something to do with every other character and some sort of stake in the story, and that I think is The Birdcage’s strongest suit. Two hours whiz by because of the strength of this film’s script. A bunch of nuanced and interesting characters are all set up to play in a relatively simple (albeit silly) plot, and left to their own devices. Voila: movie. Nothing feels in excess, there are no scenes, conversations, or characters that feel like they could be trimmed. When you get a screenplay that good and sum it with some seriously impressive directing and cinematography, The Birdcage adds up to an absolute treat to watch. There isn’t anything mind-blowing done on a technical level here. This isn’t Victoria or The Revenant. But everything from the bright colours (I think) to the expert blocking helps make this movie feel as fun as it is. Again, nothing is in excess here. Simple things, like Agador Spartacus (he insists on being called by his full name) floating around in the background of a shot, or an extra simply sitting in a chair at a restaurant observing some of these characters all help elevate all the on-screen goofs even more. Even when things aren’t being played for gags, or when the movie slows down to let some of its more dramatic moments shine, director Mike Nichols and cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki never fail to make the scene visually interesting. A rather touching scene with Armand and Albert sitting at a bus station by a pier comes to mind with tons of movement large and small happening throughout its duration. Foreground, background, actors, and camera are all moving to create a really striking set of shots, but it’s almost invisible because of how invested you are in these characters and their lives. I like that kind of understated technicality in my movies.
The last thing I want to touch on are the thoughts I had watching this movie in
2017 2018. We live in a time where everything is potentially offensive and some people are willing to sacrifice everything not to step on anyone’s toes, even by accident. The Birdcage throws all that to the wind. Is it raunchy? No. Absolutely not. Offensive? Not even a little bit. Pandering? I wouldn’t dream of calling it that. The Birdcage stands tall and proud, showing characters from all walks of life with similar and opposing values without flinching. These feel like real people, regardless of their gender identity, class, or sexual orientation. Nothing strikes me as oddly mechanical or lab-tested, like the gay characters in 13 Reasons Why did. There’s no tip-toeing or beating around the bush about having gasp gay, cross-dressing characters. They’re people, just like you and me (if you think otherwise, you can fuck right off) and they’re entertaining and heartwarming, not because they’re gay, but because they’re well written, fleshed out characters. If The Birdcage came out now as is, I don’t think it would be as well received. Regardless of its quality, it’s sheer content is enough to make PC-centric folks squirm in fear of accidentally hurting someone’s feelings. If it was being made now, I doubt it would be as good as it is because it would definitely be rewritten to either become bland and uninspired, or overcooked and far too politically inclined for its own good.
Getting straight down to the bottom line here: The Birdcage is one of only movies to make me laugh out loud in a long time. I laughed, I snorted, I chuckled, and as a comedy movie that’s everything it needs to do. It’s got heart, it’s got charm, and while it’s not perfect, it’s a pretty damn fun way to spend two hours. I would totally recommend it to someone who was interested in exploring Robin Williams’ filmography, because it definitely has piqued an interest in me to dig deeper into that catalog.