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Saturday Night Cinema: The Fabulous Baker Boys

14

Surprisingly, tonight’s feature for Saturday Night Cinema is late twentieth century, which is rare for me, but I love this 1989 film. And so will you. ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys”.  is a seedy, smokey, down on your luck glamour to it all — film noir in color.

One reviewer said, “The Fabulous Baker Boys is like a beloved movie from the glory days of Hollywood. It transports you. It’s an American rhapsody.”

Indeed.

I chose this particular film because of the unforgettable new years eve scene. Breathtaking torch singer Michelle Pfeiffer, who is the money in this, lays down on the piano and practically makes love to the song “making whoopee” while the mysterious, world weary Jeff Bridges accompanies her on the piano as the strike of mindnight approaches on New Years eve. She is electric. It’s her Gilda moment.

In this standout cast, Jeff Bridges stars with his brother Beau, and they are superb, but then, so is Pfeiffer. This is a classic, first class cinema.

Pfeiffer and 2 Bridges Brothers in ‘The Fabulous Baker Boys’

Long after midnight, New Year’s Eve: a moment that ”The Fabulous Baker Boys,” the slow, teasing, rapturously moody romance written and directed by Steve Kloves, has been waiting for. Every waiter and busboy and reveler has left the hotel nightclub, but the balloons and the confetti remain. On each empty table, a little lamp casts a deep, warm glow. And on the stage, at the piano, the beautiful singer and the handsome, world-weary pianist are still reeling from the version of ”Makin’ Whoopee” they performed earlier in the evening. Alone at last, with the time finally right, they’re ready to add a new verse.

This is the sort of thing that ”The Fabulous Baker Boys,” which opens today at the Coronet and other theaters, does very well. It’s a film specializing in smoky, down-at-the-heels glamour, and in the kind of smart, slangy dialogue that sounds right without necessarily having much to say. That its characters are essentially familiar does nothing to make them less dazzlingly attractive. Mr. Kloves, a first-time director who only occasionally feels like one, is good with ambiance and even better with actors. The best thing he has done with this film’s three stars is to have chosen them in the first place.

Jeff and Beau Bridges appear as Jack and Frank Baker, a two-piano lounge act proud of never having held a day job. Their stage wardrobe is awful, their repertory even worse (”Little Green Apples,” ”Feelings,” ”The Girl From Ipanema”), and their morale at rock bottom. Frank, the older brother, is the booster in the family; it’s he who tries to look on the bright side after a club owner offers to pay off the Bakers’ contract if they will agree not to play. Jack isn’t buying any of Frank’s nervous optimism. He hates the act, and he hates himself too.

Versatile as he is, Jeff Bridges hasn’t played a character like Jack before. For an actor who usually conveys such can-do resilience, the defeated slouch and the bored, jaded cynicism required for this role are notably new. But they aren’t beyond Mr. Bridges’s reach, and his performance here is an object lesson in how to turn self-loathing into sex appeal. And this actor’s very presence lets the audience know that the aloof, uncommunicative Jack, should he meet the right woman, could be ready to melt.

The right woman, in this film’s scheme of things, is someone who can get Jack’s attention by throwing incendiary tantrums and sounding even tougher than he does. She is Susie Diamond, the last and least accommodating would-be singer whom the Bakers interview when they decide, as a desperate measure, to expand to a three-person act. Susie’s had a hard life, and she’s got the attitude to match; when she sings a song like ”Ten Cents a Dance,” she’s very nearly singing from experience. Michelle Pfeiffer is as unexpected a choice for this musical bombshell as Jeff Bridges is for Jack, but, like him, she proves to be electrifyingly right. Introducing Ms. Pfeiffer’s furiously hard-boiled, devastatingly gorgeous Susie into the Bakers’ world affects the film the way a match might affect a fuse.

As the third member of this triangle, and a desperate champion of the status quo, Beau Bridges also has a chance to shine. Though he’s shorter, rounder and less imposing than his younger brother, Beau Bridges still has the seniority Frank needs to keep the unruly, undependable Jack in line. When the team becomes a trio and travels on the road (all three of them sleep in T-shirts and boxer shorts), it is Frank who figuratively keeps the wheels moving. Frank both shares and fears his brother’s attraction to Susie, but he’s a married suburbanite whose main concern is keeping the act together. Mr. Kloves wisely keeps Frank’s home life offscreen; the film, like the Bakers’ new, improved act, is strictly a three-person show.

The film falters occasionally with peripheral things, and with overly predictable ones. It overdoes the bad-singer audition sequence before Susie is hired, and a minor subplot about one of the bad singers (played by Jennifer Tilly) is expendable and silly. The hints that Jack secretly longs to play jazz with ”real” (e.g. black) musicians are unbecomingly trite. So are the rain-slicked streets in one nighttime sequence (when Jack finds a Susie look-alike who, of course, isn’t she) and the fight scene between Susie and Jack. (The equally requisite Jack-and-Frank quarrel is better; the Bridgeses really fight like brothers.) And at times Mr. Kloves’s leisurely, contemplative pacing is just plain slow.

But ”The Fabulous Baker Boys,” like its stars, has style and sultriness to spare. The warm, rich hues of Michael Ballhaus’s cinematography contribute immeasurably to the film’s invitingly intimate glow. And the cast members’ ingenuous musical performances work surprisingly well, sometimes even spectacularly. When Ms. Pfeiffer, draped across Jeff Bridges’s piano and setting some new standard for cinematic slinkiness, performs in the above-mentioned New Year’s Eve sequence with the camera gliding hypnotically around her, she just plain brings down the house. BOYS AND GIRL – THE FABULOUS BAKER BOYS, directed and written by Steve Kloves; director of photography, Michael Ballhaus; edited by William Robert Steinkamp; music by Dave Grusin; production designer, Jeffrey Townsend; produced by Paula Weinstein and Mark Rosenberg; released by 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation. At Coronet, Third Avenue at 59th Street, and other theaters. Running time: 114 minutes. This film is rated R. Jack Baker…Jeff Bridges Susie Diamond…Michelle Pfeiffer Frank Baker…Beau Bridges Monica Moran…Jennifer Tilly Nina…Ellie Raab Lloyd…Xander Berkeley Charlie…Dakin Matthews Ray…Ken Lerner

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