Cage Examination #20: It Could Happen To You

Film: It Could Happen To You
Demeanor: An almost zen-like calmness, with periodic bouts of foolish idealism.
Hair Quality: Blonde. And brown. Almost as if it can’t decide what color it is.
Performance Quality: Three Cages Out of Ten

There is no genre of film more thread-worn than the romantic comedy. You can cite the noisy, predictable rhythms of modern action films or decry the desperate lack of creativity in the current horror genre all you want, but they still pale in comparison to the total lack of creative forward progress made in romantic comedies since the genre’s inception. 

Presumably, this is because the people going to see romantic comedies don’t care. Every one of these plots is purely designed to get a man and a woman who initially aren’t supposed to be together to eventually be together by the end of the film. How the screenwriters go about this is entirely irrelevant. The game of Mouse Trap the writers come up with to eventually get these two kids to the cheese is ultimately ancillary to the payoff of this lovely couple coming together in celebrated union. Perhaps that’s not the case for those of us who are dragged to these movies and aren’t just there to make googly eyes at Ryan Reynolds or James Marsden or whoever the fuck, but we don’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.

With this in mind, understand that It Could Happen To You was never going to rank very highly on my list of Nicolas Cage films. I’d seen it many, many years ago, probably not long after it went to the home video market, but what I remembered wasn’t terribly positive. Upon re-watching it for this series, I realized that most of the issues I had with it back in the ’90s—namely, that it was totally boring and gay  and stuff (I was 14, don’t judge me)—wasn’t really the issue. In truth, the problem is that It Could Happen To You is something close to the most rom-commy rom-com to ever rom-com in the history of rom-coms. 

Yes, okay, perhaps a tad hyperbolic, but I was genuinely amazed at how liberally this sort-of-based-on-a-true-story tale trotted out the hoary rom-com tropes. Given the pedigree of those behind it, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. Once again we are visited by the auteur known as Andrew Bergman, the man you may recall who previously directed Nicolas Cage in another high-larious rom-com called Honeymoon In Vegas. But whereas Honeymoon In Vegas was full of wacky hijinks and flying Elvises, It Could Happen To You slathers itself in such a thick coat of sticky sentimentality that by the end of it, I wanted to bathe myself in paint thinner.

Extremely loosely based on the true story of a real life cop and waitress, It Could Happen To You features Nicolas Cage as Charlie, a Queens-born NYC cop who doesn’t make a lot of money, but is generally pretty happy with his station in life. He’s got a job he likes, loves playing stickball with the neighborhood kids (no, seriously), and has a wife (Rosie Perez) who he seems to love, despite the fact that she’s a conniving, greedy bitch, pretty much from the opening moments. 

Elsewhere, we meet Yvonne (a frighteningly thin Bridget Fonda), a severely down on her luck waitress in the midst of going bankrupt thanks to a louse of an ex-husband. She can’t afford to divorce him, she works at a cafe with a mean-spirited, draconian boss, and is in desperate need of some good luck. That good luck comes in the form of Charlie, who one day stops for coffee in her little shop and just-so-happens to not quite have enough money to give her a tip. Instead, he makes her an offer: he’s just bought a lottery ticket, and he makes the offer to split his prize with her if he wins. She is understandably incredulous about this offer, as is Charlie, frankly. But then, it happens.

Charlie wins $4 million dollars. In 1994 money, that’s quite a bit, but of course Rosie Perez is more upset than thrilled. The main jackpot was much bigger, and because there were other winners, their prize has been whittled down. Now she’s worried they won’t be able to survive on $4 million. So you can imagine how she reacts when Charlie tells her about the deal he made at the coffee shop.

This seems like as good a time as any to address the shrill, Puerto Rican elephant in the room. I have never enjoyed Rosie Perez’s presence in anything. It’s not that she’s an awful actress. In fact, quite the contrary. She’s very good at doing the one thing that she does. Unfortunately, that thing is to be a shrill, unbearable Latina stereotype. She has made movies where she’s played more fleshed out characters than here, but even then, she relies so heavily on her high-pitched squeal of a voice and the sheer volume of it that it’s impossible to like her, even when she’s playing a sympathetic character.

She’s not a sympathetic character here. This movie has her hovering somewhere  between Wicked Stepmother and Crazed, Histrionical Harpy on the villainous female character scale. She’s awful from the outset, which in turn makes you wonder why you should sympathize with Cage, who made the decision to marry to this wretch. Eventually that information comes to light (they were dumb kids who got married out of high school) but even then, I found myself constantly whispering under my breath something to the effect of “you fucking idiot” every time Cage was in the same scene with her. I was muttering this to no one, mind you. No one else was in the room with me. 

Still, the real problem is the character. Perez is an enervating presence, but she’s doing exactly what she was paid to do. Unfortunately, she was paid to be horrible. The possibility of even maybe liking her a little was squashed the second she opened her mouth. Bergman has no interest in nuance. He paints this film in the broadest of broad strokes, ensuring that the heroes are always heroic, and the villains are cackling, scheming goblins slinking around in the background.

The fact that Charlie makes good on his promise to Yvonne is the story of the century, according to this movie. Granted, the scene where Charlie gives Yvonne the good news is actually legitimately sweet, mostly because of Fonda’s elated response (she goes around dishing out free scoops of ice cream to everyone in the cafe), but then, of course, everything explodes. Charlie and Yvonne (and, to a lesser degree, Charlie’s wife) are now celebrities and the subject of much press interest. Initially it all seems relatively harmless, and afterward the two start to go about their lives. Yvonne buys the cafe she worked at, while Charlie mostly just stands around watching his wife spend, spend, spend. 

And yet, there is some kind of gravity pulling Charlie and Yvonne together. There is an unspoken connection between these two unbelievably kind and honest kids that makes you think they just might get together somehow. 

But first, there must be the inevitable fall from grace. This is always my least favorite part of these movies. I know these scenes in which the really nice protagonists suffer some terrible tragedy, either at the behest of the movie’s villains or just out of sheer awful luck, are designed to make the third act return to love and happiness all that much sweeter. The problem is that screenwriters often go to such lengths to beat these good-natured characters down that it just becomes painful to sit through. 

This film is such a case. Because the news media is always an easy villain in movies, the tabloids begin deriving some kind of relationship out of Charlie and Yvonne’s friendship, long before they actually have one. Rosie Perez uses this as her excuse to divorce Charlie and take him for everything he’s worth, and then goes that extra step further to take Yvonne for everything she’s worth. And this just keeps going, and going, and going, until finally we get to a conclusion tooth-rotting in its sweetness.

It’s not that I hate sweet movies. I can melt at a good love story, just like anyone else who isn’t a sociopath. But the line between sweet and schmaltzy was crossed long before It Could Happen To You got to its hilariously optimistic ending. You see, this movie takes place in that fictional version of New York City where all the citizens are just one sob story away from banding together for the sake of a common good. I’m talking the pre-9/11 version of this, the one that only exists in Garry Marshall movies and the imaginations of people who do not live in New York. So when the movie wraps itself up with a New York Post cover story describing their tragedy and then having a major portion of NYC’s population mail Charlie and Yvonne small denominations of money that eventually add up to $600,000, I just kind of had to laugh in disbelief. I know this is a fairy tale, and thus required a fairy tale ending, but man. MAN.

100 minutes later, Charlie and Yvonne were together, Rosie Perez had been vanquished to The Bronx or something, and I had not one memorable Nicolas Cage moment to point to. Not a one. Nothing. Nada. Zip. 

The role of Charlie doesn’t require much more of an actor than an ability to alternate between earnest and forlorn facial expressions. Any actor could have played this character. In fact, early in its production, the producers had apparently considered Arnold Schwarzenegger for the part. What?

There is nothing even remotely Cage-ian about Nicolas Cage in It Could Happen To You. He’s bland, boring, and inessential. He is competent enough at being the nice guy, but I don’t watch Nicolas Cage movies to just see him be a nice guy for 100 minutes. Even Guarding Tess had at least a few good shouty, wide-eyed moments for someone like myself to latch onto. I can’t reconcile a movie that features Nicolas Cage and then proceeds to restrain every instinct and acting trademark that makes Nicolas Cage Nicolas Cage.

Therefore, I’m going to call it here and say It Could Happen To You is officially the most unnecessary movie I’ve watched thus far in this feature. There are way, way worse movies in the actor’s catalog, many of which I’ve already covered. But for those who love Cage for being Cage, It Could Happen To You is a barren wasteland, infertile and toxic to a Cage fan’s health. 

And did I mention Rosie Perez is in it?

Random Thoughts:

  • There are a few amusing cameos in this movie from actors we’d go on to recognize many years later. Most notably, Cage’s partner is played by Bunk from The Wire. I mean, I guess Stanley Tucci as Yvonne’s ex-husband is a way more obvious example, but fuck that. I love Bunk.
  • Red Buttons as Cage’s lawyer is probably the weirdest of all the aforementioned cameos.
  • However, the strangest role in the whole movie definitely goes to Issac Hayes as the movie’s angelic(?) narrator. The casting in this movie is just bonkers from top to bottom.
  • I feel like it’s worth pointing out that among the various other Cage-related marathon blogs I’ve been pointed to since starting this feature, many of them topped out either just before, or right around this period in Cage’s career. I can’t say as I blame them, as this has been a rough couple of weeks, and it’s not exactly getting better in the immediate future. However, I am dedicated to this project, and will not quit. I will die before I give up on Year of the Cage. Consider my loins girded for the terrors that await.

Next Week: Trapped In Paradise

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