Blu-ray Review: The Birdcage

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How does director Mike Nichols box office smash The Birdcage, a remake of the 1978 La Cage aux Folles, hold up 18 years after its initial release? Quite well, which is especially impressive considering how much has changed on the U.S. social landscape when it comes to acceptance of gay culture. In 1996, a mainstream comedy about a flamboyantly gay couple was a commercially risky proposition. What was edgy then might be seen as passé now, but thanks to a sharp screenplay by Elaine May, Nichols’ disciplined direction, and an incredibly potent cast, The Birdcage survives as an uproariously funny culture-clash comedy. It’s now available for the first time on Blu-ray.

Armand (Robin Williams) and Albert (Nathan Lane) are a gay couple living in South Beach, Florida. They operate a successful drag club called The Birdcage. Armand choreographs the live shows, while Albert is the somewhat emotionally-unstable star performer. Their son Val (Dan Futterman), a product of Armand’s brief flirtation with heterosexual relationships, announces he’s getting married to Barbara (Calista Flockhart), daughter of uber-conservative Senator Kevin Keeley (Gene Hackman). Val doesn’t want his soon-to-be parents-in-law (including Dianne Wiest as the senator’s wife, Louise) to find out his parents are gay. The farcical plot finds Armand and Albert attempting to figure out how to best “play it straight” for the Keeleys, who will soon be arriving for an elaborate dinner party to formally announce the engagement.

Birdcage 3 (380x255).jpgThe heart of The Birdcage lies not only in the relationship between Armand and Albert, but between Val and his parents. Val is only 20 and quite callow. He accepts and loves both his parents, but doesn’t seem to understand how painful it is that he’s apparently ashamed of them. His fiancé is unfortunately even more immature (she is, after all, only 18) and seemingly oblivious to how hurtful their ruse really feels. The biggest catalyst for the cover-up is that Senator Keeley is in the middle of a scandal following the recent death of his partner in the so-called Coalition for Moral Order. The media is all over the Keeley since his colleague died immediately after soliciting an underage prostitute. The last thing this mega-conservative politician needs to in order to maintain his image is to be spotted smack dab in the middle of South Beach’s gay community.

Lane, a long-established Broadway star, was shot to instant film stardom with his broadly hilarious performance. Williams winningly underplays, assuming the role of straight man, as it were. Hackman and Wiest are spot-on as the stuffily uptight “traditional family values” proponents (the dinner table discussion, which ranges from abortion to gay rights, is a wildly comic highpoint). As the kids, Futterman and Flockhart are given less to do. However, in a nice update from the ’78 original, Futterman is allowed to explore a bit more character development with Val. Hank Azaria, as the Goldman’s footwear-challenged housekeeper Agador, is the primary cast’s only weak link, delivering an often-grating performance that skirts a bit too close to stereotype at times.

Birdcage 2 (380x256).jpgA no-frills catalog release from Fox/MGM, The Birdcage arrives on Blu-ray with a high definition transfer that will knock no one’s socks off. It’s entirely acceptable, but there’s an overall softness that really keeps it from looking truly impressive. For the most part it’s a clean transfer, it just doesn’t look as dazzling as one might expect. The lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack is highly front-centric, with very little rear channel activity. That’s fine though, as the clean, crisp dialogue is the focal point from start to finish.

Too bad a few extras couldn’t have been dug up for The Birdcage. All that’s here is the film’s theatrical trailer. There’s not even a menu; this is one of those Blu-rays that starts playing as soon as you load the disc. That said, considering how well the film has held up over the years, it’s nice to have The Birdcage in high definition even if the presentation falls short of spectacular.

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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