Directed by Mike Nichols

Starring Robin Williams, Gene Hackman, Nathan Lane

"The Birdcage"

Opens: March 8, 1996 | Rated: R

"The Birdcage," starring Robin Williams as a gay father who tries to play it straight for his son's future in-laws, is a very careful remake of "La Cage Aux Folles," a 1978 French film based on the famous stage play of the same name.

Very careful that is, because director Mike Nichols had to tippy-toe this racy story through a minefield of political correctness to get it past controversy-conscious studio heads.

The result is a nearly flavorless 118 minutes punctuated with a few hilarious scenes -- mostly owed to the physical comedy of stage actor Nathan Lane, playing Williams long-time lover who is a little too queeny to pass muster with the fiancee's conservative folks.

It's not the talent of the featured players that's in question. Flamboyant and fussy, Lane gets most of the laughs, albeit through the use of some very tired cliches. Williams comes across as fatherly and a little outrageous, but not flaming. He's a good anchor for the story.

Gene Hackman and Dianne Wiest play the girl's parents, a right-wing Republican senator and his wife, who are kept in the dark about her future husband's gay "mom" and dad.

The problem here is what they have to work with. The script is dry and dull -- following almost scene for scene it's 1978 inspiration. Snippets of plot and laughter come here and there, but without any consistency.

The characters are more like caricatures and we don't know anything about them beyond what is obvious from their first moments on screen.

Hackman, who is the best thing in the movie, is introduced sparring on CNN's "Crossfire" and what you see it what you get -- almost. Every part is watered down slightly so as not to make anyone appear too antagonistic.

Then there's the two young lovers, who are the least interesting of the bunch. William's son (newcomer Dan Futterman) has two character traits -- he prefers beer to wine and he's worried about what the in-laws will think.

The fiancee (Calista Flockhart, also in her first film) has only one distinguishing trait -- she looks nervous, waifish and worried.

As "The Birdcage" plods on, the press follows the senator's family to the South Beach, Florida drag club that Williams and Lane own. They have an uncomfortable dinner in the lush apartment above the club while reporters gather below, licking their chops.

The dinner scene is the climax and is where most of the laughs come in, as Lane gives up on faking machismo and shows up in drag, passing himself off as the boy's mother.

When the conservative senator finally catches on, he's aghast and convinced his career is in the crapper, what with the press outside.

But even in this scene the script is lacking. The awkward small talk the two families make in their nervousness isn't any more interesting to the audience than it is to the characters.

In the end, "The Birdcage" is about gayish physical comedy, which might have been enough had we not seen it all before so many times (John Ritter on "Three's Company" comes immediately to mind).

"The Birdcage" has one consolation, however. To disguise himself from the camera crews and thus save his career, the senator submits to a make-over. Seeing Gene Hackman dolled up in drag is almost worth the price of admission all by itself.

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