February 15, 2008

All the Ordinary People: Honeymoon in Vegas and It Could Happen to You

Prompted by what I perceived to be the fatal flaw of Neil LaBute's version of The Wicker Man, I doubted that Nicolas Cage could really play an Everyman in any sense of the word; I figured him to be too unique an individual to carry the weight of any generic representation of culture or gender. But the validity of this assessment comes into question with the rediscovery of Andrew Bergman, who brings that concept right to the forefront in an early line of dialogue in his first film with Cage, Honeymoon in Vegas. "Your problem is you're much too beautiful for this kind of work," private detective Jack Singer (Cage) tells his girlfriend, Betsy (Sarah Jessica Parker), as he snaps pictures of an unfaithful husband from afar. "Me--I'm Everyman." In casting such a notoriously unpredictable personality as the Everyman not once, but twice, Bergman hopes to examine what that term really means in a fictional and realistic sense.

Honeymoon in Vegas starts things off by presenting the effects of an early family life. At first, Anne Bancroft seems to be somewhat underutilized in a cameo as Jack's mother, but the brief interplay between the actors sets up Jack/Cage's personality nicely: their relationship seems awfully matter-of-fact. Based solely on her inflection, the request that her son remain unmarried on the basis that "no girl could ever love you like I did" doesn't feel crazy or possessive; it's presented like a logical conclusion. Jack/Cage responds, "Mom, that's a huge thing to ask," in such a way that suggests that he's about to enumerate the reasons why he can't--shortly before Mom shuffles off the mortal coil and leaves her boy screaming his promises. Jack is his mother's son, an honest fellow who comes to complex conclusions (when he very reasonably argues that a dream about his naked mother has no sexual basis--"it was about cleanliness!"--you can't help but believe him), and he sees the ins and outs of his profession as clear evidence that she was right after all, that the promise was not made in vain, and he can maintain his integrity unashamed. But he loves Betsy, so in the brief scenarios that send us from New York to Las Vegas for a quickie wedding, Jack/Cage's wincing reluctance to settle down with Betsy doesn't appear to stem from a fear of commitment--or even strict mommy issues--so much a perceived betrayal of principles. Even as the performance turns a very distinct corner in the second act of the film, he maintains a cavalier attitude about his personal life, volunteering information about the father who abandoned him so dismissively that you have to imagine that he's passed the logical answer to that devastating childhood memory through his mind a thousand times over.
Cage's aforementioned turning point in comes during the fateful poker game that sets the plot proper into motion. Jack/Cage's straightforward nature makes him a more-than-capable card player--cool, collected, difficult to read. When another player doubts his confidence during a high-stakes bet, he replies, "that's your constitutional right," a phrase spoken with the kind of impossible savvy that makes you somewhat jealous that you've never said that during a game of poker. It seems to steadily increase as the game drags on, but the buildup ends with a harsh plummet back to reality: he practically chokes on his own tongue when pro gambler Tommy Korman (James Caan) beats his straight flush with tens of thousands of dollars on the line--and he completely deflates when Tommy suggests that he "borrow" Betsy for the weekend to negate the debt. From that moment on, from his arguments with Betsy to his confrontations with complete strangers, Jack/Cage's emotional expressions are probably best described as miniature explosions lit with a quick fuse. The buildups to anger are so heated that the words run together into incoherence, resulting in a loud punctuation so self-contained that it bears an absolute minimum of fallout. The return to relative normalcy between these outbursts, forgive me, recall the indifference of a poker player between hands. However, it seems that the amazing pressure from the actual card game has completely sapped Jack/Cage's ability to be subtle, and now, when he has a point to make, he's so eager to lay down his cards and make it known that any words leading up to it are merely a necessary evil. Helpless to stop Tommy from whisking Betsy away to Hawaii, Jack returns to New York, and soon enough he blows up at a frequent client whose fears of marital infidelity (with Mike Tyson!) mirror his own: "SHUT UP! areyoutryintogivemeaHEARTATTACK?!"

"But his yelling and screaming isn't very funny," Alex Jackson argues in his review of Honeymoon in Vegas. "[...]
When he is screaming at Pat Morita, Ben Stein or Peter Boyle you feel that he is really screaming at them. There are times when you're not sure that Cage really understands what kind of movie he is in; he's bringing depth and pain where none is really required." And it's true. Cage's exasperated treatment of the material is appropriate, but the performance only veers off into an unpleasant direction when he goes off on an independent search for Betsy, sent to lay waste to what I can only assume to be Andrew Bergman's personal bugaboos--disingenuous cabbies, long lines at the airport, and Marlon Brando. Does Bergman consider himself to be an Everyman, or a voice for the same? Bergman's personal stake in the Brando matter (as revenge for the verbal abuse heaped on his last film, The Freshman) brings up the question of legitimacy, and further, where Cage is supposed to fit: is he a reflection of the Everyman, an avatar of wish fulfillment for all the little indignities that John Q. Public has suffered, or something different entirely? Cage's very individualistic vision of Jack causes a rift between himself and Bergman's own vision of the material; unsurprisingly, they are fascinating to discuss on their own but readily fall apart when you try to apply them to each other. However, Alex puts it best in comparing Cage to James Caan here: "Cage in his fuck-ups proves to still be far more interesting than Caan in his modest successes." That goes double for just about everyone else here, too. Jack and Betsy seem like a believable enough couple, but that's because Parker is such a bland presence that she just kind of washes over Cage. And, while hindsight could point to Ben Stiller as a more appropriate lead, I dare you to come up with any moment delivered by Peter Boyle in weird-Brando mode that's half as memorable as Cage's dismissal of him: "Influence? helivesinaSHACK!"

Of course, there is the argument that the Everyman's cinematic function is to react incredulously/realistically to outlandish situations, and that Cage is perfect for the part in the sense that Honeymoon in Vegas eventually throws him outside his comfort zone as an actor and artist. The potshots at Brando conflict with Cage's contemporary "Method" sensibilities, and the film has absolutely no idea what to do with Elvis Presley--with its soundtrack ridiculously analogous to the antics onscreen ("Jailhouse Rock" accompanies Jack's trip to a Hawaiian police station), the only thing it really has to say about the King is that a lot of people dress up like him and that he made a lot of movies in Vegas and Hawaii. So when Jack hitches a ride back to Vegas with a band of skydiving Elvises, Cage's palpable discomfort is twofold: both character and actor are trapped in a world that is hardly emblematic of what they know and how they know it. Jack/Cage's nervous memorization of the order in which to pull his parachute's cords--"yellowthenredyellowthenredyellowthenred"--conveniently encapsulates his constant doubt that he can fit in with his wacky surroundings; when he is finally airborne and pulls the cords in the correct order, the relief he exudes seems to constitute acceptance of his world.

When Jack/Cage finally returns to Earth and into Betsy's arms, we realize that the entire experience has changed him again. the anger has faded, and his logically honest nature has been injected with a much-needed dose of good humor--acknowledging that his past behavior has been a little strange (explaining that a new dream of his mother has released him from his promise--"'course, she was naked," he adds as an afterthought). When all is said and done, when Jack and Betsy finally marry dressed as Elvis and a showgirl, Bergman and Cage reach a compromise; they seem to determine that there is no such thing as a genuine "Everyman," and the trick is to accept your personal weirdness and find a niche in a similarly weird world. It's kind of a cheap ending, truth be told, one that doesn't really assuage the marital insecurities that the film introduced--and nope, none of it is very funny. But you feel a little vindicated all the same, if only in the sense that actor and director are finally on the same page.

The myth of the Everyman is once again brought into question in Bergman's next film, It Could Happen to You. However, this time around he applies the concept to a self-aware fairy tale, and unlike the somewhat lackadaisical Honeymoon in Vegas, its performances are forced to establish those rules right off the bat: from the moment we are introduced to New York cop Charlie Lang, Cage is impossible to dislike; as waitress Yvonne Biasi, Bridget Fonda is preternaturally sympathetic; and, as Charlie's materialistic wife Muriel, Rosie Perez is genuinely grating on the soul, a mere sliver away from becoming unwatchable. But it's perfect. It seems like a rigid, literal adherence to the rules set by Screenwriting 101, but the cast of It Could Happen to You must essentially constitute the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, with its performances conforming in such a way that everyone fits perfectly with the environment and each other: Charlie gives, Muriel takes; Charlie gives, Yvonne trusts.

As the film's resident Prince Charming, Charlie at first seems to be the apotheosis of the cinematic Everyman in the "ideal" sense--the average joe's image of himself as the
Übermensch, beyond criticism on the sole basis that he wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth. While he is poor, he's a working stiff; while he is rich, he is an unabashed philanthropist. But Cage once again treats the Everyman as someone bound by his word, adding a dash of irony by interpreting the flaws necessary to constitute this archetypal character as Charlie's complete inability to be anything but virtuous. He "can't not leave a tip," which prompts him to split the theoretical winnings of a lottery ticket with Yvonne, as there's nothing left in his pocket--but watch as he struggles with how to approach her with the $4M winning ticket. George Bailey's life was tinged with personal disappointments, but doing the right thing still gave him great pleasure; on the other hand, Charlie/Cage seems genuinely concerned by the fact that he can't not do the right thing--a barely-concealed worry that his self-interest will be perpetually stampeded by an objective truth. Whenever confronted by any moral quandary, he gives off the slightest air of unwillingness--but bound by a fear that, if he doesn't have the temerity to keep his word or perform his job selflessly, his sense of reality will just come crashing down on him.

Eventually, once the media grabs hold of the headline-friendly story, Charlie/Cage's adherence to the categorical imperative evolves into a genuine anhedonic complex: obligation has reared its ugly head, and if he can't use his newfound fortune for the benefit of others, he simply can't function correctly; even then, it seems that he can never do enough for someone. Charlie/Cage's relationship with Muriel/Perez is something of an apathetic anchor to this end as he become a "yes dear" drone to her greedy ways--an act of technical unselfishness that keeps him active, but still prevents him from achieving any form of contentment. Remaining a cop on the beat is the only real consolation: "Don't be a hero," his partner Bo (Wendell Pierce) warns as Charlie sneaks into a robbery-in-progress with his gun drawn. "Don't worry," he responds; it's one of the few phrases he can utter with any kind of conviction at this point, because he is physically incapable of allowing himself to be considered a hero.
A subsequent citation for bravery is not accepted in comfort until he announces his contribution to the Policemen's Widows' Fund; Knicks season tickets for Bo come with a cautious explanation that he could not get floor seats--every altruistic action seems like an apology.

Even when he drifts (even further) apart from Muriel and closer to Yvonne, he's unsure if it's the right thing to do--you can almost hear the internal monologue as he shares a post-dinner dance with Yvonne/Fonda; she seems relieved to have found a sympathetic spirit, but he's staring forward, brow furrowed, cycling through every possible permutation of this isn't right. He has to be inconveniencing someone, somewhere. Subsequent dates are similarly uncertain and awkward until Charlie can convince Yvonne to spend their time together philanthropically: offering free rides home on the subway and orchestrating a day at Yankee Stadium for the kids of Charlie's Queens neighborhood. Suddenly, Cage is nothing but relieved grins, completely at ease with Yvonne by his side because she sees past his insecurities and can only find an authentic heart in his generosity. "Why am I so nervous?" he says after their first, passionate kiss at the Plaza Hotel--after their villainous spouses have forced them both on the streets. "We've spent so much time together." "Maybe that's why," she responds. He's so nervous because he's so comfortable--and in that brief exchange is the key to Cage's impossible chemistry with Fonda, and the route to follow in his performance from this moment out.

Eventually, Charlie divorces Muriel, and willingly gives up his own million but plans a fight when she lays claim to Yvonne's share. Now that he's returned from riches back to rags, there's absolutely no need whatsoever to continue to emphasize that he's a kind, humble person. But it's not a matter of emphasis or establishment anymore because this is who Charlie is and there's simply no changing it. Through Yvonne/Fonda's easy-going companionship, Cage comes to accept his character's quirks and fosters an understanding of what brings him happiness--Charlie is still unwilling to let someone else suffer
even the slightest inconvenience without remark, but he's a lot freer with his kindness, less worried about simply maintaining his personal sense of right and wrong. When he's forced to crash at Bo's place, Charlie tells his daughter, "Sure is nice of you to let me use your Barney blanket, Tracy"--and Cage says it with such tenderness and genuine, unburdened gratitude that my heart just rips in half.

Long story short: Muriel wins in court, while Charlie and Yvonne marry with a little financial assistance from the people of New York. Although It Could Happen to You is more or less obligated to end with "happily ever after," I found myself cringing at some of the dialogue that brings us to that inevitable conclusion ("because of you, I have you"). A more touching moment can be found immediately after the verdict, as the media circus descends upon Charlie. "Just shut up about her!" he cries, slamming a reporter against the courtroom wall upon the mere mention of Yvonne's name next to the word "adultery." It's a moment of sudden, unequivocal rage, uncommented upon and totally unlike Jack Singer's verbal blasts in Honeymoon in Vegas--quick, unforced, articulate. It's a moment that Charlie/Cage takes himself completely out of the equation, forgets completely about who's watching him or what's fair for everyone, and at last completes another cycle of true selflessness: steadfast defense of the woman he loves. Not to mention, of course, that this should also be the moment when the archetypal man fights a media perception of himself as someone easy to categorize.


Ian Pugh said...

Sorry if I left you folks in suspense for too long--a little post-Valentine's Day rom-com Cage analysis for you.

jacksommersby said...

I dare you to come up with any moment delivered by Peter Boyle in weird-Brando mode that's half as memorable as Cage's dismissal of him: "Influence? helivesinaSHACK!"

Ian, I howl with laughter every time I watch that. A close second is, "What are you going to do? [i]Arrest[/i] me!? Put me in [i]airport jail[/i]!? If memory serves, it was critic Matt Zoller Seitz, writing in The Dallas Observer at the time, who wrote that his performance in [i]Vegas[/i] made him into the new Jack Lemmon. (It was a compliment, not a pan.)

Bemis said...

Re: Charlie Bartlett

The director went to high school here. Explains a lot, yes? I know a guy who went there, and Poll screened it for the school last year - they loved it, naturally.

Rick said...

Ian, would you ever consider doing a closer look at the work of Brad Pitt? He seems to be written off and dismissed by many movie snobs, and even dissed within the business (see: Living in Oblivion) But regarding The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, the guy is pretty damn good when he wants to be. There is much more going on with his performances than he gets credit for, which make the Living in Oblivion scenes (of improv gone bad) look like they may be exaggerated.

theoldboy said...

Brad Pitt in his mid-90's performances reminds me of a spastic capuchin monkey, fittingly in Twelve Monkeys (of course), slightly weird in Seven. He's a really interesting actor when he is in movies not called Troy.

Jefferson said...

David Denby on the Coen Brothers oeuvre. He loses points from me on his diss of Miller's Crossing.